Let’s Talk Donald Trump and Coronavirus

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

Let’s talk Donald Trump and coronavirus.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut expressed some concern on Wednesday about whether the White House is sufficiently engaged on the issue: “Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren't taking this seriously enough.”

Other reporting from the briefing indicated that members of Congress were questioning whether intergovernmental communications are in place. 

So far, the president has designated Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to head up the administration response. Trump has not followed Barack Obama’s example from the Ebola outbreak in 2014 by selecting a “czar” based in the White House. 

The reason for a president to appoint a czar in these situations is to reduce the chances of panic, or to calm things down if the panicking has already started. Putting someone in charge demonstrates (or at least gives the appearance) that the president, and therefore the government as a whole, is engaged and has a plan. Giving Azar that role is a version of that.

It’s not quite as active as bringing in someone new, especially if it’s someone, such as Obama’s Ebola czar Ron Klain, who was generally well-respected by the media and by the people they might use to assess the situation. Still, given Trump’s well-documented personnel problems throughout his presidency, settling for Azar might be a pretty good option. 

The executive branch isn’t well-organized for many sudden challenges. An epidemic, for example, can call for action from several different cabinet departments at the same time. Health and Human Services is involved, of course, but so are (or could be) the departments of State, Transportation, Commerce, Treasury and others.

Bureaucrats tend to be reluctant to switch to crisis footing, and they are notorious for believing that only their way of doing things can work. This can make coordination difficult. Someone needs to coordinate on behalf of the president, and, for it to work, this person needs the unambiguous backing of the president. 

It’s not clear whether Azar has the political skills needed to get that done, although so far he’s mostly received decent reviews. It’s also difficult for a cabinet secretary to play this role, since even with Trump’s designation, he’s still a cabinet-level official, not someone with the clear support of the president that can be conferred by a highly visible appointment.

And Trump’s reputation matters here: His history of turning on and scapegoating people within his administration when things threaten to go wrong, or even when an official makes a TV appearance that doesn’t live up to the president’s preferences, will tend to undercut anyone’s authority. That makes it more likely that Azar (or whoever was put in charge) will go into this job afraid of his own shadow. 

This is all on top of questions about the extent to which Trump has removed some scientific expertise from the government, and some institutional provisions set up by the Obama administration to handle emergencies. 

The government still has plenty of resources to mobilize to deal with an epidemic. Making this happen is one task that everyone across the political spectrum will hope that Trump doesn’t botch. 

Meanwhile, some morning reading:

1. Matthew Green at Mischiefs of Faction on Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and institutional norms of respect.

2. Rick Hasen on impeachment, acquittal and dangers for the 2020 election

3. Caitlin Jewitt at the Monkey Cage with a good overview of the Democratic presidential nomination calendar and rules.

4. Sean Trende on the Iowa results.

5. Dan Drezner on Trump’s foreign policy.

6. And McKay Coppins spoke with Mitt Romney about his vote to remove Trump. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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