President Donald Trump has been accused of many things over his years in office — pundits and journalists and lawmakers have wondered about everything from his seeming inability to tell the truth to his seeming trouble reading. As critics scrutinize his response to the coronavirus crisis, some are now wondering whether the president is even capable of showing empathy.
As critics scrutinize his response to the coronavirus crisis, some are now wondering whether the president is even capable of showing empathy.
On Wednesday night, CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley asked this very question, musing that Trump might suffer from "empathy deficit disorder." At issue was the way the president's constant White House briefings failed to focus on the individual Americans suffering because of the pandemic. "I've never seen a president unable to speak like a human being to people on the front lines," Brinkley said.
A similar sentiment was expressed Wednesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" by Mika Brzezinski, who played a clip of Trump's response to a reporter who asked whether he had spoken to the families of those who lost loved ones to the coronavirus. "I've spoken to three — maybe, I guess, four," Trump replied before veering off to talk about the need to reopen schools. Brzezinski noted that the president seemed hard-pressed to sympathize with the victims. "He's uncomfortable or it's impossible for him," she said, "and I'm not sure which is worse, actually."
I understand where Brzezinski and Brinkley are coming from. But the reality is Trump does empathize. Or, at least, he's capable of faking it. He just limits such expressions of compassion to those who can provide or have provided a personal benefit to himself.
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For an example, look no further than Trump's Twitter tantrum about Michael Flynn, which started late Wednesday and extended into Thursday. Trump tweeted and retweeted numerous offers of support for Flynn, a member of his 2016 campaign and later his national security adviser, who pleaded guilty not once but twice in federal court to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian officials.
"What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again," Trump tweeted. If only he was so passionate about the thousands of people who — you could argue — have died highly preventable deaths.
Trump's flurry of online activity was triggered by newly unsealed documents tied to the FBI's investigation of Flynn. What the documents truly reveal is a matter of debate, with some arguing that they raise legitimate questions about the FBI's tactics and others saying they show relatively "routine" decision-making. Either way, that's a decision for the federal judge handling the case to determine.
Trump, predictably, has a different take. Flynn has been a stalwart supporter of the president, leading a "Lock Her Up" chant about Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Even after Flynn was being prosecuted, he didn't flip on Trump the way Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen did. When Cohen's law offices were first raided by the authorities, Trump expressed support for him. But once Trump learned that Cohen was working with the prosecutors, he slammed Cohen as a "rat."
The Washington Post recently examined Trump's appearances at White House daily briefings from March 26 through April 25, finding that Trump spoke for about 13 total hours. During the briefings, Trump spent two hours attacking others and 45 minutes praising himself and his administration. How much out of those 780 minutes did Trump spend expressing condolences for victims of the coronavirus? Less than five total minutes, according to The Post's analysis.
How much time during his daily briefings did Trump spend expressing condolences for victims of the coronavirus? Less than five total minutes, according to The Washington Post's analysis.
You see, people who are of no personal help to Trump don't matter very much to him. It's an executive leadership style that contrasts sharply with that of President Barack Obama, who wiped tears from his eyes during a news conference after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. "Our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children," Obama said through tears. "And for the families of the adults who were lost."
And in late March, former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, spoke movingly of his own personal loss as he offered his sympathies to those who had loved ones dying in isolation because of COVID-19.
"I've lost a couple children, I've lost a wife, and it is incredibly difficult to go through, and it's harder to go through when you haven't had an opportunity to be with the person while they're dying," Biden said. He then urged people to "seek help afterwards" and "talk to people who have been through it so ... they can tell you that you can get through it."
Given this, it's no surprise that a USA Today-Suffolk poll released Monday found that 57 percent of respondents believed Biden "cares about people like me," while only 39 percent said the same about Trump.
The question at this point is: Do Americans want four more years of a president who only offers compassion to those who fulfill his needs? Or as a nation, do we want a leader who can look outside himself — during national crises but also every day? To me, the choice is clear.