Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
For just a moment Wednesday night you might have thought President Donald Trump was at long last grasping the gravity of the coronavirus situation and taking the necessary steps to confront what may be the most serious crisis the country has faced since he took office – one that could lead to the deaths of vast numbers of people.
Trump tried to give a serious address to the nation from the Oval Office, laying out a plan to tackle the pandemic. But it quickly became apparent that this was one more error-filled display in what has been a grotesque carnival of incompetence.
In a speech filled with jingoism, as well as counterproductive disparagement of US allies, Trump made a dramatic announcement. His administration, he declared, “will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days” (with a few exceptions) starting Friday at midnight. Further, he explained, “these prohibitions will not only apply to trade and cargo, but various other things.”
The Europe travel and cargo ban started making headlines around the world while the President was still on the air. Anxious families wondered how they’d get traveling children home. Importers were in shock.
DHS said the restriction would not apply to Americans or US residents and their families, and would cover only foreigners who over the past 14 days spent time in certain European countries. It doesn’t cover cargo. In short, it’s nothing like Trump’s dramatic announcement. Instead, it’s a partial ban on flights from the area known as Schengen, a 26-country European travel bloc. The White House issued the proclamation, confirming DHS’s version. There was also no mention of 30 days.
It gets worse. Trump also announced what would have been a milestone in fighting the fast-spreading contagion. Leaders of the health insurance industry, he said, “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments.” That would have broken through one of the most dangerous obstacles to containment, allowing more Americans to seek the care they need without fear of bankruptcy. But that too was wrong.
The insurance industry corrected him, saying they have agreed to waive co-payments “for testing, not for treatment,” a colossal difference from what Trump indicated.
How is it possible that the President of the United States gets so much wrong about something so important in a speech from the Oval Office? We don’t know if his speechwriters got it wrong or if he somehow improvised. Either way, it’s disastrous and unacceptable.
The frontrunner in the Democratic primary, former Vice President Joe Biden, by contrast, modeled a statesmanlike approach in remarks on Thursday, when he offered his own plans for addressing the virus and its associated economic perils. Taking aim at Trump’s words from the night before, Biden urged Americans not to “panic or fall back on xenophobia”; “labeling Covid-19 a ‘foreign virus’ does not displace accountability for the misjudgments thus far” of the Trump administration, Biden said.
The outbreak of the coronavirus has magnified the danger of everything we have seen from this president from the day he took office.
From the start of the epidemic, Trump did nothing but ignore, minimize and mislead the public, while draping himself in cringeworthy, unctuous praise from officials who diminished themselves to avoid upsetting him, after seeing how those who spoke the truth incurred his wrath.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Nancy Messonnier warned that the virus would inevitably spread and we should prepare, Trump was reportedly furious, according to the Washington Post.
When the US had two dozen cases and experts said more would come, he contradicted them, saying it was not inevitable.
As the number of cases and deaths grew exponentially at home and abroad – Italy has gone from three cases three weeks ago to more than 12,000 now – Trump incessantly tweeted and repeatedly declared that the seasonal flu kills thousands, and we don’t make such a fuss.
He kept that line in what was a downright bizarre press conference at CDC headquarters last week. “The [virus] tests are all perfect,” he gushed, adding outlandishly “like the letter was perfect,” a reference to his Ukraine impeachment case. “It’s all performing perfectly, now it’s performing perfectly in all places. And how was the show last night? Did it get good ratings?” He had been on Fox the night before. Amid the random topics, he managed to include multiple falsehoods about the virus, adding to the confusion in the official message to the public.
A reporter who was there said he found Trump’s statements “terrifying.”
The most troubling statement, in my view, came when he was asked whether people on a cruise ship should be brought ashore. “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.” That adds to concerns about why the US is not testing more people, a concern made worse by Trump’s Tuesday address, when he boasted that US numbers are better than Europe’s. (Few US tests are the likely reason.)
It apparently took a collapse in stock prices to persuade the president that this is not a public relations and marketing problem that can be solved with “alternative facts.” So, he wore his stern face to the Oval Office and addressed the nation.
America’s European allies were not only baffled by what they heard, they were livid. In a rare statement criticizing the US, they strongly condemned Trump’s decision, which many viewed as motivated by politics rather than science. “The coronavirus is a global crisis,” they said, “it requires cooperation, rather than unilateral action.” Contrary to what Trump indicated in the speech, they said the travel ban was “taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
This is but a small sliver of the mistakes and misguided moves by the President and an administration where the principal requirement for a top job is obsequious loyalty to the President.
On the whole, the Trump administration has been incompetent and ineffectual. According to Ashish Jha, head of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, “Our response is much, much worse than almost any other country that has been affected.”
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The number of infections and deaths will continue climbing, and the top man in the government has undercut the efforts of the professionals and insulted US allies, showing himself incapable of handling the crisis. With the virus raging, countless lives will be lost. The President’s inattention arguably delayed a stronger response, and his misrepresentations, self-serving messages, and incompetent actions have only added to the problem. It’s time for Trump to stand aside and let qualified professionals do their jobs.