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Analysis

How Trump Is Undermining the U.S. Response to Coronavirus

By ignoring government health experts and pushing a false narrative, the president erodes the public trust that is key to dealing with the threat effectively.

This is part of the Bren­nan Center’s response to the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has already caused several deaths in the United States, and the number of cases is rising. Senior offi­cials at the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion have warned it could poten­tially cause “severe” disrup­tions to every­day life. An effect­ive response will require the public to trust that the decisions made by govern­ment offi­cials are consist­ent with the best avail­able inform­a­tion and science — not based on polit­ical consid­er­a­tions.

But on the same day the CDC issued its state­ment, Pres­id­ent Trump contra­dicted the agency’s urgent message, predict­ing instead that the coronavirus (or COVID-19) is “a prob­lem that’s going to go away.” Even under normal circum­stances, persuad­ing the public to follow the guid­ance issued by public health offi­cials is a chal­lenge. Instead of assist­ing the CDC in its efforts to spread the message, Trump has preferred to tweet his optim­istic fore­cast for the outbreak and blame Demo­crats and the media for making the coronavirus “look as bad as possible.”

Trump’s attempts to down­play the threat of the coronavirus appear driven by polit­ics. He has made no secret of the fact that his reelec­tion campaign is depend­ing on a strong economy, and he has made clear his concerns about the virus’s impact on the stock market. Trump expli­citly linked the two last week, tweet­ing, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with every­one and all relev­ant coun­tries. CDC & World Health have been work­ing hard and very smart. Stock Market start­ing to look very good to me!”

By publicly contra­dict­ing the expert assess­ment of senior health offi­cials in the federal govern­ment, Trump further under­mines the public’s trust in govern­ment-issued state­ments, the science upon which they’re based, and, more broadly, the govern­ment’s abil­ity to effect­ively respond. Iron­ic­ally, finan­cial analysts have noted that the uncer­tainty and panic that could ensue from Trump’s misstate­ments will likely worsen the virus’s impact on the stock market, not to mention its effect on public health.

This crisis serves as a reminder that a core func­tion of govern­ment is to respond to emer­gen­cies like public health threats. Its abil­ity to effect­ively do so depends, in part, on expert profes­sion­als, respons­ible polit­ical lead­ers consid­er­ing the expert advice, and the public’s trust in both the process and state­ments issued by govern­ment spokespeople.

Given the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s history of inter­fer­ing with and misrep­res­ent­ing the work of govern­ment experts when their conclu­sions are polit­ic­ally incon­veni­ent, skep­ti­cism of the admin­is­tra­tion’s response is warran­ted.

Sharpie­gate” still lingers in the minds of many govern­ment scient­ists and members of the public. It was just five months ago that Trump falsely claimed that Hurricane Dorian was likely to hit Alabama, going so far as to hold up an altered map of the hurricane fore­cast. The admin­is­tra­tion subsequently threatened to fire senior offi­cials at the National Oceanic and Atmo­spheric Admin­is­tra­tion if they did not rescind accur­ate state­ments about the storm that contra­dicted the pres­id­ent’s distor­tions.

The pres­id­ent has also made person­nel and budget decisions that have reduced the ranks of senior public health offi­cials in the upper echel­ons of the admin­is­tra­tion, redu­cing the federal govern­ment’s capa­city to respond to public health emer­gen­cies. He substan­tially cut epidemic preven­tion activ­it­ies at the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion, and he elim­in­ated an office within the National Secur­ity Coun­cil estab­lished follow­ing the 2014 Ebola outbreak that coordin­ates responses to global pandem­ics.

These examples under­score the need for stronger laws that defend against threats to scientific integ­rity in the federal govern­ment and ensure that qual­i­fied profes­sion­als are in lead­er­ship posi­tions through­out the govern­ment. A recent report released by the bipar­tisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Demo­cracy at the Bren­nan Center details the grow­ing politi­ciz­a­tion of govern­ment science and abuses in the federal person­nel process.

The report proposes reforms that would help ensure that the govern­ment can respond to public health crises. These include creat­ing scientific integ­rity stand­ards for federal agen­cies and prohib­it­ing polit­ic­ally motiv­ated manip­u­la­tion or suppres­sion of research. The report also recom­mends fixing the process for filling senior govern­ment posi­tions and adopt­ing safe­guards to ensure that those posi­tions are staffed with qual­i­fied and ethical profes­sion­als.

The public expects an admin­is­tra­tion to staff and organ­ize govern­ment to respond to exist­ing threats. But perhaps more import­antly, Amer­ic­ans expect the govern­ment to be ready for the unknown. While we do not know how coronavirus will spread, we know that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is not follow­ing a roadmap that leads to the most effect­ive response.