Trump's talk of bare cupboards isn't doing him any favors

Trump keeps repeating "the cupboards were bare" line, thinking it makes him look better and Obama look worse. In reality, that's backwards.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump takes the stage following a tour at medical equipment distributor Owens & Minor in Allentown, Pa., on May 14, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

At an event in Pennsylvania yesterday, Donald Trump once again made the case that Barack Obama depleted national stockpiles, leaving the Republican administration without necessary resources needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

"Today we're announcing a groundbreaking initiative to replenish and modernize our Strategic National Stockpile. The cupboards were bare. You've heard me say it a lot. When we came into this administration, those cupboards were bare."

Oddly enough, part of this was true: "You've heard me say it a lot." Good lord have we heard him repeat this line with nauseating frequency.

"He left us -- the cupboard was dry, right? The cupboard was dry," Trump said in reference to his predecessor last month. He proceeded to repeat the line, with nearly identical phrasing, at official events and in media interviews.

Part of the problem with the attempt to shift the blame is that the claim isn't true. NBC News had a good piece on this last week, noting assessments from former federal officials about the Trump administration having "dropped the ball on stocking up at the first signs of a pandemic."

But there's also a self-defeating angle to this that the president apparently hasn't thought through. As we discussed a while back, even if Trump's claim were accurate -- it's not, but let's have the conversation anyway -- it raises the question of his negligence.

If you moved into a new place and noticed empty cupboards, you might be justified in complaining about the previous owners. But if you moved into a new place, noticed empty cupboards, and ignored the issue for three years, you've effectively forfeited the high ground.

ABC News' David Muir raised this same point while interviewing Trump last week. "What did you do when you became president to restock those cupboards that you say are bare?" the anchor asked.

"Well, I'll be honest," the president replied. "I have a lot of things going on."

In other words, Trump took office, claims to have found empty national stockpiles, and while his administration could've acted, the president had other things "going on."

As part of the same response, the Republican pointed to the investigation into the Russia scandal and his impeachment -- as if Trump's scandals left him too distracted to properly govern.

That's not much of an answer, in part because we know he had plenty of time to focus on his responsibilities, in part because it raises questions about his basic competence, and in part because Trump said largely the opposite last month.

Whether he realizes it or not, every time he repeats "the cupboards were bare" line, Trump makes himself look a little worse.