Presidential tweets can't paper over Trump's coronavirus failures

A question about Trump has lingered in the background: what would happen when the nation's first amateur president faced a genuine crisis? Now we know.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks at a White House summit on Dec. 12, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks at a White House summit on Dec. 12, 2019.Evan Vucci / AP file

As Donald Trump's focus remains on public-relations considerations, the president's current goal appears simple: he wants Americans not to believe their lying eyes. Indeed, Trump seems to have convinced himself that he can make the coronavirus crisis fade simply by force of will.

On Friday, for example, the president said in reference to COVID-19 testing, "[A]nybody that needs a test gets a test. They're there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test." This wasn't even close to being true, but he asserted it anyway. (Trump went on to equate the perfection of coronavirus testing -- which his administration badly bungled -- to his efforts to extort the president of Ukraine.)

On Twitter, the Republican has been even more aggressive, insisting yesterday that his administration has "a perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan." He added this morning that Vice President Mike Pence and the White House taskforce are doing a "great job."

Some of this presidential chest-thumping is routine, but it's likely Trump is being especially aggressive in pushing lines like these right now because of the many reports documenting the obvious fact that he and his team are not doing a "great job."

Time magazine published a rather brutal report last week making clear the administration's coronavirus plan was "doomed from the start," as one expert put it. The same day, The Atlantic had an equally rough article on the scope of the White House's failures on coronavirus testing. Politico had a related report on Saturday, explaining how the president's "mismanagement" helped fuel the public-health crisis, in part by "creating a no-bad-news atmosphere that stifled attempts to combat the outbreak."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported yesterday on the administration's "many preventable missteps and blunders." The article added, among other things, that public health officials and experts "struggled to find an uneasy equilibrium between doing their jobs honestly and transparently while trying to manage a mercurial president."

Even the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, published a column from Philip Klein who argued that the ongoing public-health emergency "is exposing how deeply unsuited [Trump] is to deal with a genuine crisis that he can't bluff his way through."

It's an important point. Donald Trump has faced a wide variety of crises since taking office, but most of them have been disasters of his own making. The president's response to Hurricane Maria -- and the deadly devastation in Puerto Rico -- was a striking exception, though even in that case, Trump seemed convinced he could "bluff his way through," in part by publishing a bunch of angry tweets targeting the mayor of San Juan.

It's why this analysis from the New York Times' Peter Baker rang true.

For a president who lives in the moment, rarely planning too far ahead, the coronavirus has proved to be a leadership challenge he was not prepared for either. The outbreak that has rattled the nation does not respond to Mr. Trump's favorite instruments of power: It cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants.

For three years, a question about Trump has lingered in the background: what would happen when the nation's first amateur president faced a genuine crisis? One he couldn't overpower with spectacle and nonsense? One that required him to listen, learn, and lead with a steady hand?

Such a crisis has arrived and Trump is making clear that he's not up to the task. The president's go-to moves are familiar -- lie, divert blame, contradict experts, tout a personal expertise that exists in his imagination -- but they are a poor fit for the dangerous circumstances.