OP-ED: Donald Trump failed to protect America, and himself

Timothy L. O’Brien
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
President Donald Trump holds out his face mask during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio, Sept. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, has COVID-19. He failed to protect the country and then failed to protect himself.

The consequences of Donald Trump’s hubris and apathy, for him and about 7.3 million other Americans who’ve been infected, have been dire. Lives have been upended and 208,000 of them were lost.

A nation sitting atop what appeared to be a sophisticated public health apparatus and economic juggernaut has been unspooled. Social and political divisions have come to a boil. Racism’s stranglehold on the American experiment has become more overt.

And the man who most embodies the conflicts and otherworldliness of 2020 now watches his political future, his personal well-being and his monarchical sense of entitlement circumscribed by a virus wearing a crown.

Germaphobe: One of the many ironies of Trump’s tenure in the corona era is that he’s a self-described germaphobe. He avoids shaking hands and is easily alarmed — and often disgusted — by anyone showing the slightest symptoms of common colds. He steered clear of his newborn son, Barron, for fear of catching one of his illnesses.

Long before COVID-19 began accompanying him on the global stage, he routinely invited aides to squirt shots of sanitizer into his palms. Hope Hicks, a White House aide, was often in charge of Trump’s Purell bottle when they traveled together. On Thursday evening, Bloomberg News disclosed that Hicks had tested positive for COVID-19. She had traveled with Trump to his Tuesday debate with Joe Biden in Cleveland and joined him for a rally in Minnesota the following day.

Team Trump paraded into the debate forum without masks and refused offers from a local doctor to give them face coverings. Hicks was spotted, mask-less, in a campaign van on Tuesday riding alongside other Trump advisers, including Stephen Miller and Jason Miller. Trump suggested in a TV interview that Hicks may have been infected by contact with overzealous members of the military and law enforcement who wanted to hug and kiss her.

The military and federal law enforcement are among many institutions Trump has regularly belittled or savaged during his presidency, animated, as he has been for most of his 74 years, by a surefire belief in his own expertise and a nagging grab bag of insecurities. The courts, media, Congress and a host of other entities big and small have also been punching bags.

Dismissive: As the pandemic gained momentum, Trump began bullying federal health and research institutes such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. Battered and bruised, they offered inconsistent or incorrect advice to the public and became part of a larger push by Trump to dismiss the severity of the pandemic, which severely hobbled the federal response to the crisis.

With public health experts pushed back on their heels, Trump also waged war against the most commonsense tools the public could use to combat the virus, such as masks. In short order, thin strips of cloth became, for broad swaths of the country, don’t-tread-on-me symbols of resistance to an overweening federal government intent on pickpocketing people’s liberty.

As the pandemic has continued to follow its own path, Trump, who wanted to keep escalating COVID-19 metrics under wraps, came up with the novel and incorrect theory that it’s better to test less while mired in an epic public health crisis.

After a resurgent virus lit up a number of states last summer — including Florida, Texas, Arizona and California — with spiking positivity rates, Trump had a change of heart on masks. It didn’t last long.

When Trump hosted the Republican National Convention on the White House lawn in August, neither he nor most of those in attendance wore masks. Attendees were packed together in lawn chairs, including senior members of Trump’s cabinet, mask-less, cheering and not socially distanced. It had all the trappings of what pandemic experts refer to as a super-spreader event.

Reckless: Trump is older and obese, two factors that make him more vulnerable to COVID-19. Rather than take all of the precautions someone in his situation should have, he continued to stage tightly packed rallies on the campaign trail — and defended that practice when questioned about it during the presidential debate this week. He also used the debate as an opportunity to belittle Biden for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Shortly after lockdowns began in response to the coronavirus, Trump told reporters that he took no responsibility for the failed federal response to the outbreak. That remained a through-line in the months that followed. But the virus now has the president in its grip.

Overseas financial markets were rattled by the news that Trump and his wife Melania were infected, and U.S. stock futures plunged. Hearings for a new Supreme Court justice may be delayed, and there are new uncertainties about negotiations for a federal virus relief package.

Trump’s presidential campaign was thrown into further disarray and the possibility that the president may be quarantined or briefly incapacitated gave rise to some ticklish succession issues. Vice President Mike Pence, who hasn’t reported being infected, would take the reins if Trump is unable to function. If Pence becomes ill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could possibly assume the presidency.

Trump’s White House doctor told reporters that he expects the president to continue doing his duties, albeit while being quarantined at home with his wife. Trump is a survivor and has been able to power over hurdles before. But for now, reality has caught up with the reality-TV star.

— Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.