In the War on COVID-19, the President is a Deserter

Kevin Donovan
Nov 16, 2020 · 6 min read
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Fabio Bucciarelli | New York Times

Set aside the election results, the accusations of voter fraud, the stunted transition and the politics that go with it. And for the sake of some near-term continuity, let’s ignore for the moment the Republican effort to “humor” the incumbent president by not intruding upon his preferred alternative reality — the one in which he believes he can gaslight his way into a second term.

All politics aside, and whether you believe any of the above, one undeniable fact remains: Donald J. Trump is still our President. He “presides” over our country in the executive branch, still fully responsible for delivering on the most important function of the presidency: To protect the national security and safety of the United States.

Trump often said during the campaign that, as president, he didn’t have time to sit in his basement. He had to be out on the frontlines, the war time super-hero president who single-handedly conquered COVID, the larger than life leader-on-the-balcony with the superman shield he would display when he ripped open his shirt (or so he wished).

Whatever preening comic book characterization of himself he fancied, it’s still true that Trump is responsible for leading the battle against the pandemic as any president would during wartime — overseeing battalions of medical professionals, building the artillery of vaccines and treatments, deploying the stockpiles of personal protective equipment, and as our Commander in Chief, making the best possible decisions to lead us through our most deadly conflict since World War II.

An election has come and gone and Donald Trump will still be our president until January 20th, but as we are now witnessing, the pandemic war is no longer important to him. It doesn’t matter that the virus is spiking, with case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths climbing to new records each day. Our commander in chief is AWOL. With the exception of a no-questions press conference — one specifically aimed at claiming unentitled credit for vaccine progress (as if he were throwing us paper towels) — he is missing in action. He has not shown up for a Coronavirus Task Force meeting for five months, he has slipped away from the battlefield and he has abdicated his office, leaving us on our own to face an ever-mounting tragedy that has now become an atrocity.

It is a fitting end to a presidency that was always lacking in leadership. All of that “turning the corner” stuff had as much credibility as Trump’s continuing assurances that the virus was just going to miraculously go away. The torrent of falsehoods were major factors in his reelection loss, but hindsight means nothing as the virus rages around us.

The election is over — it is not a time for Democrats to dance in the end zone, nor for Republicans to cower in fear of Trump’s base. We are on our way to suffering losses equivalent to a 9/11 every day, and nothing could be more important than taking whatever immediate action is necessary to save as many lives as possible. If ever there was a moment for a unified and scientifically informed effort to combat the spread of the virus, that time is right now. As the hospitals overflow, our overwhelmed medical professionals turn their swollen eyes to the federal government for relief, and yet, they are nowhere to be found. The President of the United States has deserted the battlefield and effectively abandoned our frontline soldiers.

Specific to the pandemic, and as confirmed by his self-serving press conference, Trump’s primary concern in the wake of the election was not the positive news that a vaccine is within reach, but that he was not receiving credit for it. His tweets convey an obsession with reversing the will of the people and, as usual, blaming everyone else around him for both his loss and the consequences of his negligence. Republicans and Democrats, as well as the few remaining officials within the Trump administration who are courageous enough to continue doing their jobs need to acknowledge that Trump has checked out. He must be left behind to wallow in his self-pity and bitterness; there will be no meaningful action or leadership emanating from the current White House.

With that in mind, there is no reason to wait. The new Biden task force should be immediately empowered to take the wheel and get to work, filling the vacuum of inaction that is driving up the death toll. Dr. Anthony Fauci and the still-operating remnants of the Trump task force should be absorbed into the new entity, and the CDC should be “immunized” from any Trump-directed retribution so they can begin re-establishing themselves as a credible authority and the source of life-saving guidelines informed by science rather than politics.

Of course, without the force of law, all Biden-generated actions and initiatives will likely need to take the form of recommendations. We can expect Trump to obstruct any directives that aren’t his idea no matter how many lives they may save, but at a minimum, Biden’s draft executive orders can be prepared to go into effect on January 20th.

Still, would it be too much to imagine Republicans and Democrats using this crisis as an opportunity to come together and ramp up the battle? Both houses of Congress could grant the new task force the resources and influence they need within the legislative branch — a show of bipartisan support that would send a hopeful message to the country. There is precedent for this type of emergency action, as when the Bush and Obama administration put politics aside and collaborated during their transition to address the 2008 financial crisis and avert a complete economic collapse.

Sadly, we know by now that Trump is emotionally incapable of rising to this occasion, and this time he is suffering from more than bone spurs. He has never been able to grasp the devastation of the pandemic in human terms — it was simply considered an obstacle to his reelection, and to his own detriment, he approached it with his characteristic lack of responsibility, patience and empathy. Ironically, even if he had continued to fail in his efforts, had he been capable of putting the interests of the country ahead of his own, he likely would have won re-election. But even today, with the election behind us and more than a thousand people dying each day, he remains consumed by his own victimhood.

In the years ahead, the mismanagement of the pandemic response should undergo a thorough review with the same level of scrutiny and learnings that were a product of the 9/11 commission. The primary purpose of such an effort will not be to exact punishment or further degrade Trump’s legacy, but rather, to avoid a future calamity similar to the one from which we have yet to escape — a tragedy that will likely have a hundred times the death toll of 9/11. If we can’t save the many we’ve lost in the present, we can at least save so many more in the future.

With our country still so deeply divided, we should at least be able to agree that unity has never been more important — that who we voted for and which tribe we belong to is secondary. We need to rally as a nation and take bold and aggressive action right now.

As for future generations, the Trump legacy will provide them with a unique case study: a landmark moment in American history in which the emotional incapacity of one man led to tragic consequences for an entire country. It was all far worse than it needed to be. How did a person with so little interest in others beyond himself rise to power in America? When we needed him to care, to step up and lead us in battle, he deserted us. This points to a brutal truth that, regardless of our wishes for the 2020 election, we all need to accept about Donald Trump if we are to move forward and fully confront the greatest challenge of our time.

He doesn’t really care about our country and he doesn’t care about you. He never has.

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