The Coronavirus Is Bad. Trump Could Make It Worse.

Crisis management requires truth-telling and competent leadership.

To manage the growing coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration will need something it’s been devoid of over the past three years: a commitment to truth-telling and competent leadership. Absent a dramatic change in approach, an already bad situation will likely be made much worse.

We’re dealing with a president more interested in his reelection prospects than safeguarding the public health, who disregards science and experts, and who has a disturbing pattern of shading the truth. That’s a dangerous way to govern, period. It’s even more disconcerting when dealing with a crisis—like a hurricane, wildfire, or potential pandemic—in which lives are on the line.

According to the Washington Post, Trump has told more than 16,000 false or misleading statements in his first three years in office. The emergence of the coronavirus doesn’t seem to have changed his behavior.

In his first public statement after the Dow dropped 1,000 points on Monday, President Trump propagated questionable—indeed, patently wrong—information. At a press conference in India, he said the number of cases was “probably down to 10,” adding that coronavirus is “a problem that’s going to go away.” Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the virus is “pretty close to airtight” contained.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put the number of U.S. cases at 60, and a top CDC official said, “It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”

Trump has also claimed that “we are very close to a vaccine” for coronavirus. The White House issued a rare clarification afterward, saying the president was referring to a vaccine for Ebola, not coronavirus. In fact, experts believe a coronavirus vaccine could be a year away. Even worse, Trump has continued to say that the virus will ease with warmer weather, despite no evidence to support this assertion.

Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge facts and evidence undermines one of the most important tools available during a crisis: public trust in the U.S. government. In fact, Trump is making the possibility of chaos and confusion all the more likely.

Every White House is confronted with unexpected crises. When I worked for President Barack Obama, we dealt with the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010, severe tornados in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the Ebola outbreak in 2014.  In anticipating and responding to these incidents, there was no substitute for experienced professionals who understood the intricacies of government programs and legal authorities, who were able to coordinate well with each other, and could quickly make adjustments to address new challenges.

Above all, an effective government response requires leaders who are willing to provide factual information to the American people, even if it’s less than positive. Two months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, Obama admitted in an Oval Office address: “Sadly, no matter how effective our response becomes, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done.”

That might not have been what the public wanted to hear, but it was the truth. Unfortunately, we have no reason to expect the same from the Trump administration.

Even Republicans are getting frustrated. At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf was unable to provide basic information about the virus, leading Senator John Kennedy to say: “You’re supposed to keep us safe. And the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus—and I’m not getting them from you.”

None of this inspires great confidence in this White House’s ability to manage a potential pandemic.

In addition to creating more confusion through its public statements, the White House this week submitted a request to Congress for $1.25 billion to fight coronavirus. By comparison, the Obama administration requested $6 billion to fight the Ebola outbreak in 2014, eventually receiving $5.4 billion.

Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress promptly expressed concern about the inadequacy of Trump’s funding request. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said: “It seems to me the administration’s request is low-balling it, possibly. If you low-ball something like this, you’ll pay for it later.”

Ironically, Trump’s emergency request comes on the heels of budget cuts to the programs that he now seeks to fund. In his 2020 budget, he proposed cutting $3 billion from global health programs, $3 billion from the National Institutes of Health, and another 16 percent from the CDC budget. While these funding cuts have been resisted by Democrats in the past, the constant threat of cuts makes it difficult for agencies to plan ahead for the next crisis.

A lack of funding isn’t the only problem. It’s also a lack of experienced leadership.

Following the Ebola outbreak, the Obama Administration established an office within the National Security Council to coordinate the government’s response to global pandemics. That office was eliminated in 2018 because the Trump White House “did not see global health issues as a national security priority,” as the Guardian put it.

Other agencies on the front lines have been decimated by high turnover and major vacancies. For instance, the top three positions at the Department of Homeland Security are now occupied by acting officials. The State Department, which provides a critical link to foreign countries battling coronavirus, has been gutted; nearly half of the most senior diplomats retired or were pushed out during the first two years of the Trump administration.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter how capable the staff are in the White House and federal agencies. Managing a crisis of this magnitude requires stable leadership at the top.

It requires a president who makes reasoned decisions based on facts and science, not the impact on the stock market. It requires a president who values competence and expertise in selecting leaders to manage the response efforts, while also seeking input from elected officials on both sides of the aisle. Most importantly, it requires a president who is willing to hear bad news, make tough decisions that aren’t politically popular, and is willing to tell the truth to the American people.

In other words, it requires a president who doesn’t think or act like Donald Trump.

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Chris Lu

Chris Lu served in the Obama Administration as White House Cabinet Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Labor. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center.