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Trump's coronavirus briefings are chaotic, but the president's response deserves more credit

Trump's bloviations are easy to mock and criticize. But it’s often more useful to consider what Trump does than what he says.
Image: Dr. Anthony Fauci addresses daily coronavirus briefing with President Trump at the White House in Washington
Dr. Anthony Fauci smiles alongside Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump at the White House on March 25, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

President Donald Trump bungled many aspects of the early coronavirus response. He minimized the threat, postulating “like a miracle, it will disappear.” He blamed “previous administrations” for the lack of testing and medical supplies needed for the pandemic, though he has been in charge for more than three years.

To be sure, actions were being taken behind the scenes to begin getting the country ready — despite the president’s inattention. Some of the early failures were also due to bureaucratic problems and technical snafus. And the futile impeachment trial arguably distracted the president, and his entire White House, from getting serious earlier about the threat.

A president has to chew gum and walk at the same time — even if it’s a lot of gum.

But a president has to chew gum and walk at the same time — even if it’s a lot of gum. Whatever the bureaucracy’s failings, a president can help kickstart its machinery into gear and override shortcomings by signaling his seriousness about an issue. In addition, it was his job, whatever Barack Obama handed him, to ensure that the country was ready for a pandemic. Even if now may not be the time, the problems associated with the Trump administration’s early response to COVID-19 deserve to be investigated.

Still, Trump deserves credit that few seem ready to give him for his current approach to COVID-19. Some of the fault for this lies with Trump and his own bloviations, which are easy to mock and criticize. But it’s often more useful to consider what Trump does than what he says. And here are seven things he is doing right.

He's listening to experts. The president says he listens to his gut — but his gut seems heavily informed by his brain. The president is consulting a vast array of advisers, outside experts, business leaders and fellow politicians as he goes about making his decisions. Two of America's most expert doctors, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and State Department Ambassador-at-Large Deborah Birx, are helping lead Trump’s response and usually by his side at the daily White House briefings.

He's communicating with the nation. Yes, the briefings go off the rails every day as they follow Trump’s guided tour through his mind — where grievances, false information and self-adoration are on display. But the briefings, held six or seven days a week, also tell the public in the most visible way possible that their government — and their president — is fighting for them. Trump shows he is knowledgeable about the state of play and the response, even amid misstatements and lies. Health experts, as well as Vice President Mike Pence and other officials, are always at some point able to deliver more sober accounts of the newest information. Meanwhile, the president takes questions and makes himself available.

He's keeping federal power in check. Trump in one briefing proclaimed his “authority is total” — exactly what the U.S. Constitution says it is not. But his detractors are still waiting for his seizure of total power, which they have been predicting since before he was elected. His response to the coronavirus has, in reality, been remarkably restrained. His resort to the Defense Production Act to force industries to help has been extremely limited, wielded, as he has noted, more as a threat than a cudgel. Instead, Trump has invested enormous time speaking with industry leaders to secure their assistance.

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Meanwhile, the White House guidelines for reopening the economy leave decision-making power to the states, a judicious use of federalism that acknowledges the widely differing conditions in various regions. Note the White House wording — “guidelines,” not “directives.” Decisions are left up to the governors, and guideposts are firmly based in meeting health criteria, like a “downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period.” This document must be a grave disappointment to the shriller voices on the right demanding a quick reopening. It was, however, obviously written by health experts, not economists. That said, Trump’s recent siding with protesters against the lockdown and calls for them to “liberate” three states with Democratic governors is both contemptible and contradictory to his own policy.

He's trying to balance health and economic concerns. All that said, the president is clearly eager to get the economy revived as fast as possible. Though he is regularly portrayed as impulsive, Trump is so far resisting his impulses. And his deep concern with the economic collapse is more than warranted. Trump’s concern is with the barbers, waiters, factory workers, store clerks and so many others who are facing a financial abyss they never bargained for or deserved. Of course, they are also voters — and he will want to campaign with an improving economy. But that does not mitigate the wisdom of balancing health with economic destruction.

He's staying positive. Trump was widely ridiculed for calling himself a “cheerleader for the country.” And true, this acolyte of “the power of positive thinking” got into trouble early on by deluding himself about the magnitude of the problem, but his can-do spirit will be needed to lead the country out of the crisis. Trump has celebrated health care workers, grocers, truck drivers and others now combating the pandemic, providing crucial moral support and showcasing for the nation its heroes. It’s an antidote he administers to his own self-centeredness.

He's helping the states. Yes, he picks fights with governors, but Democratic state executives from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to California Gov. Gavin Newsom have praised Trump for his accessibility and help. They may, in part, be placating a prickly president, but it’s doubtful they are simply lying through their teeth. Trump is literally working seven days a week and is constantly on the phone with governors and world leaders, to coordinate the response to the pandemic.

He appointed Pence to lead the coronavirus task force. Having covered the White House for many years, I can report that this was a vital step. Trump could have appointed a “coronavirus czar” or put an agency chief in charge. But a vice president has the power not to be ignored by the bureaucracy that must implement Trump’s policies. When the vice president, or someone working directly for him, calls, you answer the phone.

Trump’s mistakes and errors of judgment tend to get the greatest focus because he makes them so colorfully. But beneath the cacophony, there are meaningful benefits to his approach.