On virus missteps, Trump declares, 'I don't take responsibility at all'

Trump has spent more than three years trying to avoid blame -- for anything. It led to an unfortunate declaration from the White House.
Image: President Trump declares coronavirus pandemic a national emergency during news conference at the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump during a news conference where the president declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 13, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump held an event in the White House Rose Garden to declare a national emergency. In the light of the coronavirus outbreak, the presidential announcement was not at all surprising, though the event itself was remarkable in its own right.

If you watched the gathering with the sound off and paid no attention to what was being said, there were some painfully obvious problems. For example, Trump crowded a group of officials and executives close to one another, before shaking participants' hands. Several speakers, including members of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, then manually adjusted the shared microphone.

The president's remarks at the event made matters quite a bit worse. Trump made a series of bizarre and demonstrably false claims on everything from the Obama administration's H1N1 response to a Google resource that's still in development, from European travel restrictions to student-loan payments. The president even overstated the details surrounding plans for drive-through testing.

But there was one line in particular that's likely to help define Trump's response to the biggest crisis of his presidency.

Asked Friday at his press conference by NBC News' Kristen Welker whether he should take responsibility for the failure to disseminate larger quantities of tests earlier, Trump declined. "I don't take responsibility at all," he said.

No, of course not. Trump has a handful of presidential rules to live by, and near the top of the list is the belief that he's entitled to take credit for all good things that happen while he's in office. It dovetails with the related belief that he can avoid blame for any bad things that happen while he's in office.

But reality is stubborn, and there can be no doubt that testing has been one of the critical problems with the federal response to the outbreak. NBC News reported over the weekend that some of Trump's own advisers acknowledged that "the failure to focus on widespread testing was their biggest misstep. The U.S. is behind most industrialized nations in understanding the extent of infection within its borders."

One official told NBC News, "If we all went back, we obviously would've hit on the testing part more."

The president could acknowledge this. He doesn't want to.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because Trump has spent more than three years trying to avoid blame -- for anything. It's quite a departure from his pre-presidency definition of "leadership." He wrote in a 2013 tweet, "Whatever happens, you're responsible. If it doesn't happen, you're responsible." Trump liked this so much, he ended up publishing the same phrase four times over the course of a couple of years.

In fact, as regular readers may recall, before reaching the White House, the New York Republican had all kinds of thoughts about the importance of people in positions of authority taking the blame when things go wrong. In a 2012 tweet complaining about Barack Obama -- one of many such missives -- Trump wrote, "He can never take responsibility."

And yet, soon after taking office, he authorized a mission in Yemen, which claimed the life of Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens. "This was something that was, you know, just, they wanted to do," the president said, referring to U.S. generals. "They came to see me they explained what they wanted to do, the generals ... and they lost Ryan."

Several months later, with most of his legislative agenda having gone nowhere, Trump said during a cabinet meeting, "I'm not going to blame myself."

Around the same time, the president resisted even acknowledging the deaths of four U.S. Army Special Operations soldiers who were killed in an ambush in Niger. Eventually, Trump commented on the Americans' deaths – but only to make clear that he didn't authorize the mission.

Early last year, after an extended government shutdown he was solely responsible for, Trump told reporters, "The buck stops with everybody."

It's a posture he still can't shake.