Believe it or not, I was all ready to praise Donald Trump this time. I really thought when he announced a news conference for Wednesday evening that he would manage to stick to a reasonable script, and there were very promising rumors that he was prepared to make an excellent choice for a new coronavirus czar.
Why? Because so much was on the line for Trump, and what he had to do was so easy. And while he hasn’t done it often, and I didn’t expect it to last much beyond the initial statement, he has at times managed to read a reasonable speech as written. Surely with the markets in turmoil, and the nation poised on the edge of panic, it would be obvious even to him that this was not the time for airing his grievances, repeating his usual insults, and rambling on like some leader of a banana republic who long since lost touch with reality.
Well, if you watched Trump’s news conference, you know I was dead wrong.
Yes, he used his usual juvenile nicknames and petty insults for the Democrats he’s going to have to work with. Yes, he blamed the stock market drop on Monday and Tuesday on — wait for it — the Democratic debate Tuesday night. Yes, he repeatedly praised himself for solving the problem (setting up a potential “Mission Accomplished” moment in the likely event the pandemic spreads in the U.S.) and had administration officials praise him as well. All entirely inappropriate and counterproductive.
But it was worse than that. He was at times barely coherent even for someone who knew what he was trying to say. I can’t imagine what it was like for the bulk of the nation, folks who only sometimes pay attention to politics but might have tuned in because they want to be reassured that the government is on top of the problem. He must have been almost completely incomprehensible to them, rambling on about how he had recently discovered that the flu can kill lots of people and referring in a totally oblique way to the budget requests he had made to Congress and their reaction. He occasionally said something that sort of made sense, but mostly? Not. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s reaction was what I thought: “I found most of what he said incoherent.”
At no time over the course of the news conference did Trump supply evidence that he had any idea what he was talking about.
As for the substance? What Trump needed to do was to bring in someone in the White House to be in charge. Asking Vice President Mike Pence to do it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t really a very good choice, either. I’m not very worried about Pence personally; a lot of liberals were taking shots at Pence for his poor record on public health when he was governor of Indiana, but what’s important here are political and bureaucratic skills, not subject matter expertise. Pence should have the skill set for the job.
So what’s the problem? First, I’m not thrilled with having a vice president lead the charge. For one thing, Pence has other responsibilities, so he won’t be the full-time coordinator that’s really needed. But the real problem is having a virus czar who can’t be fired and can’t credibly threaten to resign — or even to be seen having any separation between himself and the president at all. (That’s not really a Trump-specific issue; it’s inherent in the job of the vice presidency). That weakens Trump, and it also weakens Pence as czar. Someone brought in specifically for this job could have been given more authority and would have had a better chance to successfully steamroll the bureaucracy as needed.
Even worse was how Trump talked about him. Trump first buried the announcement at the end of his rambling opening statement. He also at one point said that HHS Secretary Alex Azar will still be leading the task force on the coronavirus. Then when asked he denied that Pence was a “czar” — an informal title, but one that connotes authority and the full backing of the president. And then he said everyone would report to Pence … but “they’ll also be reporting in some cases to both. I’ll be going to meetings quite a bit, depending on what they want to do, what message they want to get out.” In other words, Trump undercut Pence and muddled the lines of authority right in the announcement of Pence’s new responsibilities.
The reason someone is needed in the job is to break down the bureaucracy and coordinate the actions across agencies. For it to work, the czar (or whatever) needs full, clear, and consistent backing from the president, something that’s not in Trump’s nature to provide. But I really did think he could at least have pretended to do so in the original announcement. Nope.
In other words, Trump is still making the situation as risky for himself as possible — and risking real policy failure in responding to real danger to public health.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.