Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Trump’s astonishing six-word answer


"Leadership. Whatever happens, you're responsible. If it doesn't happen, you're responsible."

That was Donald Trump, reality TV host, back in 2013.

"I don't take responsibility at all."

That was Donald Trump, President of the United States, this month.

He was answering a specific question about the severe shortage of coronavirus test kits in the United States, which has allowed the disease to spread virtually undetected for weeks.

But the quote was illustrative of something far broader. Thousands upon thousands of words have been written in the last three years trying to pinpoint the core deficiency of Mr Trump's presidency. He just did it for us, however unintentionally, in a single sentence.

In short, Mr Trump never takes responsibility. For anything. Nothing is ever his fault. No mistake is ever acknowledged. If something goes wrong, the blame must be shifted and a distraction must be found.

We saw the pattern again this week. After downplaying the threat of the coronavirus for months and thoroughly failing to prepare for it, Mr Trump attempted to distract his critics. He started a concerted effort to refer to it not as the coronavirus, but as the "Chinese virus".

The distraction worked. Much of the media took the bait and hyperventilated over the President's "racism". Reporters wasted their questions at press conferences asking why he'd chosen that term.

"It comes from China. That's why," Mr Trump said.

"I want to be accurate."

Of course, the virus has no nationality. But it did originate in China, and the Chinese government's typically paranoid, authoritarian response - to try to cover up the disease at first instead of properly containing it - has undoubtedly made things far worse for the rest of the world.

I daresay most Americans would not be particularly outraged by the President's choice of words, any more than they'd be annoyed about references to the Spanish flu.

And that whole argument is beside the point anyway.

Mr Trump didn't actually care about "accuracy". He was doing the same thing he always does in these situations - trying to start a nonsense argument about political correctness, because that was better than allowing people to focus on his own bungled handling of the crisis.

"I've always known this is a, this is a real, this is a pandemic," he said this week, shamelessly rewriting the months he'd spent dismissing the coronavirus as a media beat-up.

"I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," he continued.

"All you had to do was look at other countries, I think now it's in almost 120 countries all over the world.

"I've always viewed it as serious."

Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

It is impossible to overstate just how full of crap Donald Trump is here. Let's review the record.

On January 22, CNBC asked the President whether he was worried about the virus becoming a pandemic.

"No, not at all," he said.

"We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

On February 2, he told Fox News host Sean Hannity the travel ban on China had "pretty much shut it down".

On February 14, he suggested the virus would simply go away as the United States headed into its summer months.

"There's a theory that, in April, when it gets warm - historically, that has been able to kill the virus," said Mr Trump.

Historically, the flu has been less active in summer. But as Mr Trump took quite some time to grasp, the coronavirus is not the normal flu. We still have no idea whether it will follow the same pattern.

At the time Mr Trump floated his theory, the World Health Organisation said it had "no reason to believe" the virus would behave differently in warmer temperatures.

By February 26, there were 60 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, and that number was rising steadily.

"We're going down, not up. We're going very substantially down, not up," Mr Trump claimed during a press conference, contradicting his own administration's health officials, who were standing right next to him.

"As they get better, we take them off the list, so that we're going to be, pretty soon, at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time."

One or two people! In the entire country! Incidentally, there are now more than 13,000 cases in the United States.

A day later, on February 27, Mr Trump conceded the virus could "get worse", but in the same breath suggested it could disappear entirely.

"It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear. And from our shores, we - you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens. Nobody really knows," he said.

On February 28, Mr Trump held a political rally in South Carolina, and told the crowd criticism of his response to the outbreak was "the new Democratic hoax" - lumping it in with the Mueller and impeachment investigations.

He dismissed the media's warnings about the coronavirus as "hysteria".

At the start of March, Mr Trump repeatedly claimed a vaccine for the virus would be available "soon", again contradicting his own government's experts, who estimated it would take somewhere between a year and 18 months.

On March 4, in another interview with Hannity, the President said the World Health Organisation's official coronavirus mortality rate of 3.4 per cent was "a false number".

"Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this. Because a lot of people will have this and it's very mild. They'll get better very rapidly," he said.

"They don't know about the easy cases, because the easy cases don't go to the hospital. They don't report to doctors or the hospital.

"So I think that number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1 per cent."

He went on to compare the virus, once again, to the regular flu.

In fairness to Mr Trump, the mortality rate may very well end up somewhere below 1 per cent, once a vaccine is available and we have a more complete picture of the numbers.

But he was still clearly, stubbornly seeking to downplay the severity of the virus, implying there was little to worry about at a time when other leaders around the world were urging their populations to exercise caution.

On March 6, Mr Trump brushed off criticism of the test kit shortage and straight up lied about the availability of testing.

"Anybody that wants a test can get a test," he claimed, in defiance of basic maths.

A day later, a reporter asked the President whether he was concerned about the virus spreading, perhaps even to the White House.

"No, I'm not concerned at all. No, I'm not. No, we've done a great job," he replied.

On March 15, as the US blew past 3000 confirmed cases, Mr Trump still insisted his administration had "tremendous control" of the virus.

Then, 24 hours later, he finally changed his tune.

"If you're talking about the virus, no, that's not under control for any place in the world," he admitted.

That is how long it took Donald Trump to take the coronavirus seriously. He remained in denial until March 16, less than a week ago, when more than 7000 people around the world - including 86 Americans - were already dead.

Mr Trump downplayed the virus for months.
Mr Trump downplayed the virus for months.

Mr Trump is obviously not responsible for the existence of the virus or its spread around the world.

He is responsible for the failures of leadership which have left the United States far more vulnerable than it needed to be.

America and South Korea both identified their first coronavirus case at about the same time, back in January. Korea immediately focused on widespread testing, and has now tested 300,000 people. The United States, with more than six times the population of Korea, twiddled its thumbs as Mr Trump downplayed the threat, and is still well short of 100,000.

Offered test kits by the World Health Organisation weeks ago, Mr Trump rejected them.

Because of the test kit debacle, US authorities have no true idea how far the virus has spread.

Doctors across the United States have warned they don't have enough medical supplies (ventilators, respirators, masks etc) or hospital beds to deal with a rapid escalation in cases. Mr Trump could compel manufacturers to produce what is needed, using his emergency powers. Instead, he has left the states to deal with the problem.

"We're not a shipping clerk," he said this week, brushing off the idea of a focused federal intervention.

State governors have all but begged Mr Trump to use the Army Corps of Engineers to prepare for the pandemic by building, for instance, temporary hospitals and quarantine shelters.

"We are starting the process," he finally said on Tuesday, somewhat vaguely.

Mr Trump's administration dissolved the National Security Council office set up by his predecessor to plan for pandemics. The President was asked about that this week too.

"You did disband the White House pandemic office, and the officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly," reporter Yamiche Alcindor said.

"So what responsibility do you take?"

"I just think it's a nasty question," Mr Trump shot back.

"And when you say 'me', I didn't do it. We have a group of people. I could perhaps ask Tony about that, because I don't know anything about it. I mean, you say we did that. I don't know anything about it."

There it is again. The utter refusal to take responsibility.

Instead of getting angry at Mr Trump for calling a virus that started in China "Chinese", maybe people should focus on the President's failure to do his job.

Originally published as Trump's astonishing six-word answer

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