Are We Learning from Errors?

Terry H. Schwadron

March 29, 2020

Some days ago now, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham lashed out at the media for reporting on bumbling by the Trump administration in the pandemic’s early days.

“I don’t know why the media has to continue to look backwards,” Grisham complained to Fox News host Howard Kurtz, a thought I’ve heard echoed in social media. “The president didn’t have a crystal ball there. And he has acted appropriately. He has acted appropriately from the beginning.”

There always is a strong desire to understand the current situation and to focus on the near future. But actually, knowing what has happened is as much about the future as the past, to help sort out what has been learned and what might prove important ahead. Why else question about anything from history, three months’ worth or three centuries’ worth.

This need to learn seems particularly true with a cyclical medical pandemic that may wane in the summer and return again next winter. And, doing so does not divert medical or economic resources, just some brainpower and whatever it takes to ask and answer lingering questions.

It seems particularly appropriate because Donald Trump insists daily on rewriting what happened in the day before, never mind the weeks that led up to it. In his telling, there never were any errors.

The rising death toll and his constant, repeated announcement-backtrack pattern would seem to suggest otherwise.


In the news business, we call such look-back reporting a tick-tock, and it is a standard journalistic approach for a good reason. So many developments pass at the speed of talk that sometimes it is hard to see the whole picture. Once we recognize that we are in an historic “moment,” it is almost always a good idea to step back and take a look at how the current-day came about.

Outside of the news media, we call such a process learning from our successes and challenges — with the hope that we can apply what we’ve been learning to improved performance or response to the next like event.

Of course, Donald Trump doesn’t look at events this way. He keeps his attention on today, with short-term senses and reliance on gut rather than information. “Before taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals,” read a New York Times assessment last week.

But while Trump gives himself and his team only top grades for their responses to the virus, often repeating himself on this point in daily 90-minute briefings that are just shy of out-and-out campaign appearances, there were mistakes by the bucketful.

It seems important to know them, to adjust and refocus our efforts as needed.


Like other news outlets, The Washington Post has detailed how U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the virus while Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread, though he did order the border closed to China.

Taken together, the Post said, those reports and warnings depicted a pandemic that would take swift action to contain it. Lawmakers also did not order early action.

Politico had one of a continuing series of disclosures that showed that the Trump administration ignored or set aside its own national security handbook on steps to take in just such a medical emergency. The 69-pagehandbook laid out hundreds of tactics and key policy decisions to take early action to re-equip and supplement medical supplies and protective equipment, fully detect potential outbreaks, secure supplemental funding and consider invoking the Defense Production Act — all steps in which the Trump administration lagged behind the timeline laid out in the playbook, said Politico.

It has been governors and mayors, begging for significant federal coordination and purchase power, who have acted independently and asymmetrically to the disease.

Only those in the White House or part of the now-operating task force express strong belief that the White House actions were on time, effective and aggressive. Everyone else cites Trump’s own public appearances and statements to show that Democratic and media efforts to talk about coronavirus reflected a “hoax,” then a “foreign hoax,” then a “Chinese virus,” all in efforts to distance himself from any need to act. Famously, as one point, Trump declared he had no responsibility in the spread of the virus.

That approach has since been been re-written to script Trump as a “wartime president” who is willing to step in to cut bureaucracy, back untested drug treatments, assert progress without being able cite numbers and facts.


The point is that, by themselves, none of these accounts of what happened — the attempt to “look backward” as Grisham would say — are meant to harm this president politically. They are intended to provide the context of today’s moment, to show that attitudes have changed and become much more focused and, well, presidential, reflecting a moving view of leadership.

That this information will be used politically is incontrovertible. Speeches by both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders made clear even to Donald Trump that a different public attitude was called for. So, Trump has put himself forward in these daily briefings, if for no other reason than to displace Vice President Mike Pence and governors like Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsom in California, whose leadership skills have been obvious to anyone watching.

Whatever Trump did about his earlier presidential shrugs over too much concern over the early days of virus has changed. But now Trump wants full adulation for taking over the helm, even if the actual daily results of testing, feeding medical supply lines, making effective use of the Defense Production Act and other emergency measures fall short of his words.

All this is important because we’re about to hit another measuring mark this week in which Trump may simply open areas of the country for business before we are in a position to recognize either the breadth of infection or have the vast popular testing procedure in place to recognize spread.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer