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Trump Makes Competence the Issue

Terry H. Schwadron

March 14, 2020

The buck stops, well, over there.

Asked whether he takes responsibility for testing delays, among other coronavirus missteps by his administration, Donald Trump said simply no. Indeed, in a press event to declare a public national emergency, Trump spent much of the presentation praising his own inadequate response that basically provided the virus to take hold in this country — despite closing of borders, Trump’s preferred defense.

OK, the Rose Garden announcement, an appearance along with medical folks and private business executives who will now move in to take over testing responsibilities, went a long way toward papering over some of the earlier presidential missteps. Properly used, the delayed emergency declaration can release dollars, cut through Medicaid red tape and equip the country’s agencies to get moving.

His announcement was rewarded by an end-of-day positive review from volatile financial markets, and it seemed the first actually intentional acknowledgement that the country as we know it is busily shutting down to hunker at home.

And Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an announcement of her own, that she and the president’s team had reached agreement on the outlines of an immediate legislative package that can be brought to bear. The House passed it last night, but Senate Majority Leader thought it was perfectly okay just to go home for a long weekend, and so, it still requires Senate approval.

So, as workers started staying home in droves across the country, sports leagues shut down, concerts, plays, and schools closed, we finally got the attention of Dear Leader.

And then, Trump took some questions, including the one about taking responsibility that he called “nasty” just for being asked, and showed us that he still doesn’t believe there is a big medical problem out there; instead it is material to be shaped and re-presented as a PR effort towards his re-election.


Donald Trump is remarkable, really. As president, he has an unerring ability to let anything serious roll right on by him, and every time he does so, it seems to momentarily leave everyone in his presence slightly stunned, unable to believe that he is defying fact. Even as Trump as at the podium for an emergency declaration for contagion, he went about shaking hands and repeatedly touching a microphone used by others, doing everything he was telling others not to do — despite exposure to positive coronavirus cases.

When the questions did get asked, Trump said he had never gotten rid of the pandemic panel scientists in the White House in 2018, claiming he knew nothing of this. And then he started to blame former Chief of Staff John Kelley Jr.

Trump’s disregard for science and scientists is legion, his disdain for experts and knowledge among advisers is without bounds. The least he could do is to own up to it, and either be proud of his outlook, or, God forbid, acknowledge that he had made a mistake.

He could have said that these last few weeks have taught him that dealing with coronavirus is more complicated and detailed than he had expected. He could say that solutions to real problems are difficult. He could have acknowledged that America First is a poor fit for a global pandemic, and that he had proved more misleading tan d lacking in empathy through his various daily statements than helpful.


Years ago, as a reporter in Rhode Island, I covered city and town government, sometimes very small communities where residents gathered once a year in town meetings to decide on how to govern, on whether to buy a new fire truck. Even then, you could distinguish those local leaders who existed on their perceived spark of personality, and those towns that actually hired a town manager. The manager was a non-mayor, what we today would call a technocrat, who made the town government actually function without all the frills of political office.

Structurally, we lack that in our federal government.

We elect the most angular personality or the person we fall in love with, and we simply assume that this person, left or right, will know how to govern.

Donald Trump has made competence in office a central issue for this election or the lack of it.

Trump already fails the presidential tests for empathy, and remembering that it is the president who is supposed to work for us. His is a job in which he listens and takes responsibility, and he has failed repeatedly. While I agree with hardly anything this president does and says, I should be able to find him competent. I don’t.

Donald Trump doesn’t take responsibility. The buck indeed does stop elsewhere.


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