The Rationalist Papers (14): The presidential COVID quiz
While most Republicans believe Trump has handled the COVID-19 crisis as well as other wealthy countries, nearly all Democrats disagree. If you were in charge, could you have done better? Today we find out.
Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservative, moderate, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.
What actually happened in the nine months or so since we learned that the coronavirus was a potential threat to public health? There is so much news every day that it may be difficult for you to remember. Today’s post reviews the record and gives you a chance to compare your own decision-making to the President’s. You’ll have the unfair benefit of hindsight, but Trump had his own benefit: unlimited access to the most knowledgeable experts in public health and the financial resources of the United States Government.
Each item below relates to a decision that President Trump had to make at a specific point in time. (These decision points come from the excellent reporting of Mother Jones, which has a timeline of COVID events.) For each item, decide what you, as president, would have done, and compare your answer to the President’s. All dates are 2020. If you get bored or annoyed, skip to the end for my analysis.
24 January: virus spreads in China
China is struggling with a massive outbreak of a new and highly communicable virus, and has locked down the city of Wuhan to contain it. What would you do?
- Communicate factual information about the virus to Americans.
- Set up regular briefings with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and begin to prepare scenarios.
- Incite prejudice against Chinese people.
- Respond to a question about if you are concerned about the virus, “No, we’re not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”
- Tweet this: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
28 January: assessing the threat
Joe Biden writes in an op-ed that “The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president.…To be blunt, I am concerned that the Trump administration’s shortsighted policies have left us unprepared for a dangerous epidemic that will come sooner or later.” Trump’s national security advisor tells Trump the coronavirus will be “the biggest national security threat” of his presidency. Your response:
- Choose Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to head a coronavirus task force.
- Hold a campaign rally.
- Tweet “Are you better off now than you were three years ago? Almost everyone say YES!”
- Prod the Fed to lower interest rates.
- Publicize your plan to contain coronavirus in response to Biden’s op-ed.
What Trump did: 1, 2, 3, and 4.
2 February: China travel
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warns that even people without symptoms can spread the virus. What do you do?
- Completely ban all travel from China.
- Ban travel from China with exceptions for US citizens and residents.
- Send testing kits to state and local public health labs.
- Praise China for its handling of the virus.
- Minimize the problem in an interview with Geraldo Rivera and suggest that it will go away by April.
What Trump did: 2, 3, 4, and 5. After the travel ban, 40,000 people travel from China to the US. And the test kits don’t actually work properly.
2 March: vaccine projections
The president convenes pharmaceutical manufacturers to a meeting in the White House. Vaccine makers are reluctant to commit to a timeline. What do you do?
- Ask vaccine manufacturers to get a vaccine ready in a few months.
- Back up Dr. Fauci when he agrees with the vaccine makers that a vaccine will take more than a year to get read and distribute.
- At a campaign rally, state that the vaccine will be ready soon.
What Trump did: 1 and 3.
6 March: visit to CDC
The president visits the Centers for Disease Control. What do you do?
- Wear a mask like everyone else to model appropriate behavior.
- State that “anyone who needs a test can get a test.”
- Suggest that a cruise ship with infected people should not dock in California because it would increase the number of reported cases in the US.
- Tweet about the flu killing far more people than the coronavirus.
11 March: pandemic
The World Health Organization declares coronavirus a pandemic. What do you do?
- Ban all travel from Europe.
- Ban all travel from Europe except for the UK.
- Promise that all travelers to the United states are being tested, and sent back if they test positive.
- Declare a national emergency.
- Take responsibility for the country’s response, including its successes and failures.
What Trump did: 2, 3, and 4. Trump’s statement about everyone coming in being tested was false. He also said “I don’t take responsibility at all” for testing problems.
16 March: market crash, hydroxychloroquine
The Dow drops a record 3,000 points. Some early studies indicate positive results for the drug hydroxychloroquine. What do you do?
- Describe your response to the crisis as a 10 and say “we’ve done a great job.”
- Say that you knew it was a pandemic before anyone else did.
- Start calling it “the China virus.”
- Tell a reporter “I like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
- Describe the drug hydroxycholoroquine as FDA approved for COVID-19 and with “very, very encouraging early results.”
- Say “The market is not what is important. What’s important is the coordinated effort we are assembling on testing and treating this virus.”
What Trump did: 1 through 5. However, hydroxycholoroquine was not approved, and has actually turned out to be both ineffective and dangerous.
27 March: crisis actions
Governors are clamoring for ventilators to treat people in their states. Congress has approved a $2 billion economic stimulus bill. What do you do?
- Sign the stimulus bill.
- Invoke the Defense Production Act to get General Motors to make ventilators.
- Work closely with governors on their local problems, balancing their needs with the available supplies.
- Tell Vice President Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, not to return calls from governors who are not appreciative of the government’s help.
What Trump did: l, 2, and 4. Trump promised 100,000 ventilators, but only one-third were ready by June.
1 April: masks by mail
The Postal Service develops a plan to send 650 million masks to everyone in the country. What do you do?
- Send the masks and use them as an opportunity to communicate about appropriate measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.
- Scrap the idea because it might create concern or panic.
What Trump did: 2.
13 April: checks and delays
The Treasury Department is ready to mail out stimulus checks to everyone. Regarding testing, there are delays in getting equipment and result. What do you do?
- Encourage people to spend the checks to benefit the economy.
- Insist that your name appear on every check.
- Address the issue of testing delays and fix the problem.
- Blame the delays on bad and broken tests from the Obama administration.
What Trump did: 2 and 4. (I’m not sure how Obama could have prepared tests for a virus that appeared three years after he left office.)
17 April: protests against lockdowns
Protests arise against lockdowns in states. What do you do?
- Tell people that gathering is unsafe, and lockdowns are a necessary step in containing the virus.
- Tell governors they should consider opening their states by 1 May.
- Tweet “Liberate Michigan.”
- Describe the protestors as “very responsible people.”
What Trump did: 2, 3, and 4. In May, armed protestors stormed the Michigan State House. And just yesterday, the FBI arrested some people in Michigan for plotting to kidnap the Michigan governor.
23 April: disinfectant
A study shows that disinfectant can kill coronavirus germs on surfaces. What do you do?
- Tell people to disinfect surfaces touched by others.
- Suggest that people take disinfectant internally or inject it.
What Trump did: I think you know.
20 June: rally in Tulsa
The president wants to get back on the campaign trail. What do you do?
- Hold a virtual rally on Zoom.
- Hold a rally in Tulsa, but suggest that everyone attending wear masks and keep social distance.
- Hold an indoor rally and give no guidance about masks.
- Announce that a million people have signed up for the rally.
- Call the virus “Kung flu” at the rally.
- Suggest at the rally that “more testing means more cases” and assert that we need less testing.
What Trump did: 3, 4, 5, and 6. Total attendance is 6,200. Six staffers working on the event test positive. The rally results in a surge of cases in Oklahoma. Herman Cain, who attended the event, contracts and dies from COVID-19.
1 July: 50,000 cases per day
The US reaches a new record of 50,000 cases in a single day. What do you do?
- Ramp up calls for social distancing, testing, and masks to slow the spread.
- Suggest “at some point it’s going to just disappear.”
- Have your press secretary call the current state of the virus “just embers.”
- Claim that 99% of COVID cases are “totally harmless.”
- Announce plans to withdraw from the UN’s World Health Organization.
- Announce plans to join an international alliance of scientists working on COVID prevention and cures.
What Trump did: 2, 3, 4, and 5.
2 August: school reopenings?
Trump’s coronavirus coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, says that infections are entering a new phase that is extraordinarily widespread and recommends remote schooling in areas with high rates of infection. What do you do?
- Insist that schools reopen and threaten do block funds for those that don’t.
- Call Birx’s comments “pathetic.”
- Develop a careful set of guidelines for how schools can reopen, and request funding from Congress to help school to prepare.
What Trump did: 1 and 2. After a school in Atlanta reopened and a student tweeted a photo of a packed hallway, 35 students and teachers test positive. As schools begin to reopen, there are more than 700 outbreaks.
30 August: are the deaths really from COVID?
A QAnon follower tweets that only 6% of those listed as dying from COVID actually died from the disease. (This is a distortion — the remainder had comorbidities that made them more susceptible.) What do you do?
- Tell people who are at higher risk, for example the elderly and those with diabetes, to use extra caution.
- Retweet the distorted information.
- Tell Fox News that most COVID-19 victims “died from other reasons.”
- Attack Biden for wearing a mask as much as he does.
What Trump did: 2, 3, and 4.
7 September: vaccine rush
Moncef Slaoui, a top adviser for the federal vaccine program Operation Warp Speed, says, “There is a very, very low chance” that a vaccine will be tested and ready to distribute by the end of October. Another federal official says “I don’t know any scientist involved in this effort who thinks we will be getting shots into arms any time before Election Day.” And Kamala Harris says, regarding rushed vaccine development, “I would not trust Donald Trump . . . I would not take his word for it.” What do you do?
- State that any vaccine will be rigorously tested by the FDA before it is generally available, and that the timeline is not going to be rushed for political reasons.
- State that the vaccine will “probably” be available in October and be ready “in a matter of weeks.”
- Suggest that even without a vaccine, the virus will go away.
What Trump did: 2 and 3. He suggests that the nation will develop a “herd mentality.” Regarding public confidence, just over half of Americans surveyed say they’d get the vaccine if it were available.
2 October: Trump tests positive
The President announces that he has tested positive for COVID-19. He receives treatment at Walter Reed Hospital. Dozens of others who attended the announcement of Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett also test positive. What do you do?
- Use your experience to show the American people the danger of infection and recommend regular use of masks and social distancing.
- Ask the doctors treating you to disclose all elements of your treatment as a way to show transparency.
- Release information on your last negative test so that officials can trace contacts that may have led to infections.
- Tout the experimental Regeneron treatment you received as excellent, although it has not yet been approved for general use and is not available in mass supply.
- Call your infection “a blessing from God.”
- Blame gold star parents of fallen veterans for giving you COVID.
6 October: potential stimulus deal
Democrats and administration officials are negotiating a relief package that will help states, schools, and citizens to deal with the economic effects of the pandemic. It’s been many months since there was any relief. What do you do?
- Encourage your negotiators to complete negotiations on a complete package as soon as possible.
- Suspend all negotiations until after the election.
- Ask that only parts of the package be approved, undermining your own negotiators.
What Trump did: 2 and 3.
What I learned from all this
Reviewing all these events was instructive. It helped me to understand all the opportunities that Trump had to act, and how he tends to act. I hope it also helped you to understand more about how we got to the place we are in now.
What’s most interesting about this series of events are these trends that have applied for the whole of the crisis:
- There is a lack of strategic planning. Once you know this is a long-term problem, you need a consistent long-term plan to deal with it. The Trump administration was reactive, not proactive, in dealing with challenges like testing, making resources available to states, messaging about prevention, and messaging about treatments and vaccines. I would have far more confidence if there was a plan that had been put in place early and followed, regardless of the elements of that plan. (That’s what’s happening in many states, but would have been even better if implemented federally.)
- There is a strong tendency for Trump to focus on daily messaging and infighting over consistent action.
- There is a disturbing lack of consistency of statements from Trump and his own public health officials, which undermines confidence.
- There is a clear bias towards statements that minimize the problem and state “it will go away,” rather than a sober assessment of the actual situation and potential bad news that the nation must deal with. If you hear only promises and good news, and watch those promises fall flat and the news turn bad, you lose faith in the administration’s honesty about the crisis.
Trump and America got handed a terrible situation. I don’t blame Trump for the virus. But we must all hold him and his administration responsible for the response, which has been reactive, inconsistent, combative, and blindly optimistic.
Any chief executive who operated his corporation like this would be fired and replaced.
As the shareholders in America, you have a responsibility to act on this information.
An excellent recap and very persuasive. If only I knew how to get Trump supporters to read it…
What do you do when friends with a huge blind spot ask you to not discuss politics with them? In general they present as rational and intelligent and educated people. I still value their friendship for many reasons. They will feel personally attacked and probably reject my friendship if I forward your unwelcome evidence that they have been betting on the wrong horse. Would that our species was more rational and less emotional.
I have to quibble with your statement that any CEO who operated his corporation like this would be fired and replaced. That’s true of any CEO who ran a public company (with a board of directors), or who ran a private company and who had the confidence to have a board (and who cared about those he employs as more than replaceable machines). Trump has never been either of those things.
Curious about your thoughts of Biden’s response. He said (during the golden debate) that he was a private citizen and owed no one any advice. Is that an acceptable stance?
I think I would have been tempted to lay out a plan and recruit the heads of government (like say, Governors) to participate in responses in line with my plan and experimenting to find out what works better. Would that have been prudent, in your opinion?
Maybe a companion article on what Biden (or others) did that was better.
I have not seen anything much better than the lackluster response from Trump, Biden, States, and the bureaucracies. (Or CEOs, either.)
I wondered when some CEOs decided to reduce or forego their salaries in the virus crisis. Freak, crises are when you earn your salary. In bubbles where even turds float to the top, anyone could have been CEO and made their companies money and seen their stock prices rise. When bubbles, burst, shitty CEOs can earn millions by firing folks en masse as their companies’ stock prices tank. The true test happens when things change from the expected and the CEO has to lead. I am willing to pay and pay big for leadership.
Biden is correct that it’s Trump’s plan that we need to evaluate, since he is in charge. But Biden, as you well know, has his own plan posted on his site.
Trump’s response has generate poorer results than any other developed country — a lot higher proportion of the population dead, and more infected.
Since I am writing about the election I am not going to analyze plans of other countries, but results in Germany, Vietnam, or New Zealand were much better.
Or you and he could wimp out.
The choice is between Biden and Trump. Comparing their approaches seems reasonable and rational.
There is good stuff in Biden’s plan, there’s stuff that is already happening, there’s stuff that is questionable, there’s misleading stuff, and there is unrelated stuff too.
The UK has about the same death rate (death/pop) as the US and higher death/infected rate. And we have no accepted way on how to count the important numbers or account for the vast differences across countries. BTW, there are references to two aspects of data collection in Biden’s plan.
I would still have the same temptation. If Biden could have gotten States to buy in and show real results, I think they would have moved folks on the fence. It would have shown a leadership so far lacking in Joe (it’s only been ~50 years) as leading outside of power is the hardest.
Josh, your analytical mind is once again on display. Bravo. You cut through all the pure bullshit that surrounds this “president”. You deal in reality. We are being “led” by a man with no plan to do anything but reflexively blurt out lies and bully anyone who has the temerity to have an opposing view. Very much like a third world, banana republic strongman.
Biden wouldn’t have been my choice either. It is a shame we cannot find better candidates for the most important job in government. If he wins, I pray Joe surrounds himself with smart people and LISTENS, something that the current “president” is unable to do.
Thanks for the excellent analysis in the Rationalist Papers!