On March 31, the White House unveiled grim epidemiological models. Even best-case scenarios predict that the death toll from Covid-19 may reach 240,000 fatalities.
This is an about-face for the White House and its boosters, one that unfolded like a three-act drama. In act one, the response brimmed with suspicion and blame. Chinese reports could not be trusted. To some, it was an exaggerated hoax, concocted by Democrats and liberals to chide the White House. By the end of January, suspicion turned to blame. The first concerted policy out of Washington was not to prepare at home but to ground flights from China. By then, cases were being reported in the United States, most alarmingly in a Seattle nursing home. Still, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a point of calling Covid-19 the "Wuhan Virus". More diplomatically challenged voices called it the "Flu Manchu" after the racist Hollywood movie stereotypes.
If China was to blame in act one, the next act was to dismiss the virus as a menace. Trump declared that it was less lethal than a regular flu. One Fox News host, Jesse Watters, rounded on his co-host and asked "Do I look nervous? No. I’m not afraid of this coronavirus at all." The airwaves were even worse. Rush Limbaugh, one of Trump’s favored voices, bellowed into his microphone about the fear-mongers in the mainstream media, universities, and the "deep state" – like the Center for Disease Control. No one ridiculed the warnings more than Trump’s favorite Fox News anchor (Trump joins him every week on television to an average of 5.6 million viewers), Sean Hannity. As far as Hannity was concerned, this was a trifle, whooped up by Democrats to cloud Trump’s economic genius. As late as March 10, when the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was pleading to Americans to be careful, the firebrand conservative commentator, Candace Owens, snorted at "the mass global mental meltdown". (A month later, she still refuses to admit her irresponsibility). The real threat was believing the "hoax" and not trusting the President.
Denial meant being chirpy in the face of threat. President Trump rushed to announced that his otherwise slow-moving Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had "approved" chloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. It had not. And scientists, including, very publicly, some of President Trump’s senior medical advisers, dismissed the malaria-prevention drug as a pipedream. While Trump announced that he was "a big fan" of the drug, the FDA Commissioner was forced to confess that it was a "false hope". Days later, Trump tweeted, "hydroxychloroquine & azithromycin, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine". Trump had said, "If you wanted, you can have a prescription", adding, "What the hell do you have to lose?"
The most recent, third act, of the play, once President Trump admitted the emergency, was to declare war. The White House became the hub of a "battle plan," and "survivors," like the evangelical Nic Brown, got rolled out to relay stories of faith. Stay at home, follow the guidelines – and above all pray.
At the center of this weak link in a complex system is the Oval Office. Instead of building a strong link with a cohesive and capable team, the President added more, smaller, weak, links. In the middle of the panic, on March 6th, Trump fired his acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney. In his place, Trump named a Congressional loyalist, Representative Mark Meadows. But Meadows took three weeks to resign his congressional seat. To fill the gap, Trump created a task force.
At the outset, he handed it to Alex Azar, Trump’s second Health and Human Services Secretary and former pharmaceutical lobbyist. Azar was confirmed at the beginning of 2018 and immediately pivoted to Mr. Trump’s pet concerns: lowering drug prices and fighting the opioid epidemic. Azar was a loyalist. As the alarms went off, and news leaked out about HSS inaction, Azar became more concerned with the reputation of his department and the administration. His goal: change the message. To no avail. On February 26th, Trump dumped Azar and replaced him as the Covid-19 Task Force head with the Vice President Mike Pence.
By then, the credibility of the White House was in deep trouble. Lashing out at fake news agencies in his daily briefings and calling state governors disrespectful, the frustrated and petulant president turned to his kin. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who oversees something called the White House Office of American Innovation, swept into action. Kushner calls his Office the "Impact Team." Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials struggling to manage the catastrophe found the glitzy former executives appointed by Kushner to "Impact," like his friend Adam Boehler, head of the US International Development Finance Corporation and erstwhile venture capitalist, meddlesome and confusing. FEMA workers renamed the Impact Team the "Slim Suit Crowd" for the Armanis they wear to the battlefields.