OP-ED: Petulant president snaps at innocent-but-accurate description of hospital equipment availability

Robert A. George
New York Daily News (TNS)
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues in the United States, President Donald Trump talks to journalists after signing a proclamation honoring National Nurses Day in the Oval Office at the White House May 06, 2020 in Washington, DC.  (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

When critics call out President Donald Trump’s petulance or blatant cruelty (often directed at female targets), supporters rush to defend him, usually with the excuse that he only attacks those who attack him first; he gives as good as he gets; it’s not personal; etc., etc.

What then must those defenders say looking at what happened Wednesday afternoon in the White House?

For just about any other president trying to steer things in the middle of a pandemic, this photo-op should have been the easiest of events — honoring the people on the front lines of a medical crisis. On National Nurses Day even! What could possibly go wrong?

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Well, this is not any other president. Indeed, this is not any normal president; this is Donald Trump. And so we go around the room introducing some of the nurses being recognized. He comes to Sophia Thomas, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Thomas works at the Daughters of Charity Health System in New Orleans; you may have heard that was a major coronavirus hot spot. At one point, it had more cases per capita than New York City.

The exchange between the president and Thomas is incredibly illuminating. It’s about two-and-a-half minutes, but gives everything you need to know about the moment we’re in and the leader presiding over it.

Asked about the availability of personal protection equipment, Thomas is diplomatic and almost deferential speaking to the president of United States. She says, rather matter-of-factly, that speaking with colleagues around the country, there are “pockets of areas” where PPEs have been “sporadic.” Immediately, she adds that this is a unique time — the lessons learned in nursing schools of “one gown, one mask, one patient” aren’t applicable right now; she’s had to reuse one mask repeatedly, but brought a new one for her visit to Washington. She uses the phrase, “sporadic, but manageable.”

At no point is Thomas accusatory or hostile toward the president or the administration. She has a tone reflecting the professionalism of her occupation and what the moment calls for. She’s incredibly polite and you might think her a Trump supporter. She volunteers an answer to a reporter who asked why none of the nurses were wearing a mask or socially distancing in the Oval Office (“We’ve all been tested; we’re all negative … we wouldn’t do anything to harm our president obviously.”)

Alas, the deference showed was not enough for this president. The camera shows Trump turning his head to look away from Thomas and to stare straight ahead at hearing the first “sporadic.”

At her second utterance, Trump says, “Sporadic, for you, but not for a lot of other people.” Thomas, realizing her apparently catastrophic error, rushes to give agreement, “Oh, no, I agree, Mr. President.” (In truth, Thomas was very clear in distinguishing between her own situation and what she was hearing from colleagues “around the country.”)

No matter. The president launches into “I’ve heard the opposite. I’ve heard they’re loaded up with gowns now, with everything.” He turns to the rest of the room and delivers his now-well-worn mantra of how the last administration left the cupboard bare and how he’s built everything up. He waves off Thomas’ description as “fine,” but that in fact, “we have a tremendous supply.”

After Thomas, he finds a more pleasing foil, a New Jersey nurse who shares her frustration with how depressing the media’s portrayal of their plight is. More to his likening, the president cheers up and says, “Yes, that’s fake news.”

Anyone with a family member in the nursing profession knows the sacrifices they make and the long hours they work (this writer’s mom was a nurse for 50 years). Imagine how honored they would feel to be invited to the White House to be recognized during a moment of national crisis, to speak honestly to the president of the United States — only to be made small, because they made an innocent “mistake,” using a word that would annoy the inarguably most thin-skinned chief executive this nation has ever had, a man subject to outbursts of petulance that are anything but sporadic.

Happy National Nurses Day.

— Robert A. George is a member of the Daily News Editorial Board.