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As coronavirus outbreak continues, Trump fails to inspire confidence

Trump and his team have confronted years of questions about their competence. Occasionally, those concerns are especially acute.
Image: President Donald Trump arrives for a news conference in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 25, 2020.
President Donald Trump arrives for a news conference in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 25, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

About a month ago, for reasons that were far from clear, Donald Trump promoted a curious report about the coronavirus. Pointing to an article on a right-wing website, the president signaled to the public that Johnson & Johnson was in the process of creating a coronavirus vaccine.

And while that certainly sounded encouraging, it wasn't quite right. While Johnson & Johnson is one of several companies that are working on a possible vaccine, human trials are nowhere close.

This morning, Trump told reporters in India, "[W]e are very close to a vaccine," only to have White House officials clarify soon after that he wasn't talking about the coronavirus. At the same press conference, Trump insisted that the United States is "probably" down to 10 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which was also wrong. (Just last week, the Trump administration brought 14 coronavirus-infected Americans to U.S. soil, despite objections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

It's against this backdrop that Vox's Matt Yglesias noted that this seems like a good time to question Team Trump's competence when it comes to dealing with the virus outbreak.

The Covid-19 outbreak ... is a reminder that it remains a scary world and that the American government deals with a lot of important, complicated challenges that aren't particularly ideological in nature. And we have no reason to believe the current president is up to the job. Trump not only hasn't personally involved himself in the details of coronavirus response (apparently too busy pardoning former Celebrity Apprentice guests), he also hasn't designated anyone to be in charge.

This is hardly an outlandish assessment. On the show last night, Rachel highlighted this Foreign Policy piece from a month ago, which said the United States "has never been less prepared for a pandemic." The article added:

In May 2018, Trump ordered the [National Security Council's] entire global health security unit shut down, calling for reassignment of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and dissolution of his team inside the agency. The month before, then-White House National Security Advisor John Bolton pressured Ziemer's DHS counterpart, Tom Bossert, to resign along with his team. Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced. The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10. Meanwhile, throughout 2018, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its director, Mark Green, came repeatedly under fire from both the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.

A New York Times report added, "Democrats ... have expressed concerns about the administration's ability to respond if there were a severe coronavirus outbreak in the United States, noting that a global health security expert position on the National Security Council has been left vacant for almost two years."

Of course, given the circumstances, Democrats aren't the only ones raising concerns.

As for budget considerations, let's also not forget that the White House budget proposed deep cuts to global health programs and the National Institutes of Health, and while administration officials yesterday made a new request for funds related specifically to the coronavirus outbreak, many lawmakers were quick to note the appeal was both late and inadequate.

Trump and his team have confronted years of questions about their competence and ability to tackle routine governmental tasks. Occasionally, those concerns are especially acute.