Why is the White House so reluctant to ramp up testing?

The US needs expanded testing to re-open society; Trump is desperate to re-open society; so he should want to expand testing. So what's the problem?
Image: A coronavirus testing site outside International Community Health Services during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Seattle
Nurse Tina Nguyen holds out a nasal swab for a patient at a coronavirus testing site outside International Community Health Services in the Chinatown-International District in Seattle on March 26, 2020.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

At the top of yesterday's White House press briefing, Donald Trump said 4.18 million Americans have received coronavirus testing. Apparently confused by the concept of per-capita comparisons, the president went on to read a list of countries -- twice -- that combined have done less testing than the United States.

The number was less impressive than Trump seemed to realize. After all, it was exactly one month ago tomorrow in which the administration announced it expected to have "well over 27 million" tests available in the U.S. market.

Complicating matters, while Vice President Mike Pence claimed on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday that there is "a sufficient amount of testing to meet the requirements of a phase-one reopening," plenty of governors know better. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) told CNN yesterday that Team Trump's rhetoric is "delusional."

"That's just delusional to be making statements like that. We have been fighting every day for PPE," Northam said, referring to personal protective equipment. "And we have got some supplies now coming in. We have been fighting for testing. It's not a -- it's not a straightforward test. We don't even have enough swabs, believe it or not. And we're ramping that up. But for the national level to say that we have what we need and really to have no guidance to the state levels is just irresponsible, because we're not there yet."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) added that the "lack of testing" is "probably the number one problem in America and has been from the beginning of this crisis." He added that the White House's happy talk "is just absolutely false."

And yet, Trump can't seem to help himself. At yesterday's briefing, in reference to reagents -- chemical agents needed as part of coronavirus tests -- the president told reporters, "We're in great shape. It's so easy to get." Reality paints a very different picture.

All of which raises an awkward question: why, exactly, isn't Trump making every possible effort to ramp up testing?

At first blush, his posture seems difficult to understand. The logical progression seems obvious: the nation needs vastly expanded testing to re-open society; Trump is desperate to re-open society; ergo, the president should be ready to move heaven and earth to dramatically expand testing.

But he isn't. On the contrary, he's doing largely the opposite, punting the issue to states. On Friday, Trump tweeted, "The States have to step up their TESTING!" Over the weekend, the president added that the federal government would stand "with" the states, but said governors "must be able to step up and get the job done."

First, states simply lack the capacity and the infrastructure to do this on their own. If the United States is going to triple its virus testing, it will be up to the federal government to coordinate and facilitate the endeavor. Whether the president likes this or not, either the federal government will implement a national testing plan or it will not happen.

Second, the idea that the White House is prepared to stand "with" the states is itself dubious. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the national "disarray" on testing and pointed to one anecdote in which a doctor reached out to Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration's testing coordinator, who'd inquired about supplies on behalf of a commercial laboratory. "There is zero probability we can help on plates," Giroir told the doctor, referring to the disposable plastic trays used in the testing process.

And finally, I suspect Trump's seemingly bizarre posture is driven by his unshakable commitment to blame-avoidance. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the more the White House is actively involved in ramping up testing, the more the president will take on greater responsibility for the federal response to the pandemic.

In theory, Trump could ramp up testing, help clear the way for gradual economic expansion, and take credit for the progress, but he doesn't seem willing to take the risk. Remember, the Washington Post reported two weeks ago that White House officials made "a deliberate political calculation that it will better serve Trump's interest to put the onus on governors -- rather than the federal government -- to figure out how to move ahead." The Post added that the president's team has prioritized "trying to shield the president from political accountability."

It's an inexcusable posture, but it explains quite a bit.