As coronavirus deaths near 100,000, Trump makes America exceptional in all the wrong ways
When our son was very young, we used to tell him he had won at miniature golf because he had the highest score. I think of that whenever I hear President Donald Trump use phrases like “amazingly well” and “badge of honor” to describe America’s response to the coronavirus.
There is no disputing our high scores. We officially topped 1.6 million cases on Friday and now near the dreaded milestone of 100,000 deaths. (That’s 28% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths and 30% of its cases, though we account for only 4% of its people.) We’re heading toward 40 million unemployed and a 30% unemployment rate — a downturn “without modern precedent” and “significantly worse than any recession since World War II,” in the words of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.
The same day Trump was saying he would have done “nothing” differently, a Columbia University study showed that starting social distancing on March 1 instead of in mid-March could have prevented 54,000 deaths and 960,000 cases.
Predictably, the president dismissed Columbia as a “very liberal” institution and the study as “a political hit job,” and added: “I was so early. I was earlier than anybody thought. I put a ban on people coming in from China. Everybody fought me on that.”
Secrecy, incompetence and lawsuits
Well, not everybody. Experts in his own administration had recommended it. And the United States was roughly the 46th country to do it. Plus, Trump’s restrictions on Americans and noncitizens who had traveled in China had nothing to do with the social distancing — staying home, staying 6 feet apart, wearing masks — that the Columbia study addressed.
Trump has also said that “we lead in cases” because “we have more testing than anybody else.” And, “we’re also a much bigger country than most.” Not quite. We don’t have the most cases and deaths per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University data, but many countries — Germany, Canada and South Korea among them — have fewer deaths per 100,000.
As for Trump’s claim on doing the most testing, as of Monday, data from Oxford puts the United States at 14th in per capita global testing over the previous 10 days.
The pandemic and the economy are far from the only areas in which Trump has reinvigorated American exceptionalism in all the wrong ways. He withdrew from the Paris climate accord, making the United States the only country on Earth that won’t be part of it. He has pulled up America’s welcome mat for refugees, and our nation of immigrants is now at a historic low — trailing the rest of the world in refugees for the first time in decades.
Trump is also singular — and high scoring — in his evisceration of transparency, accountability and accuracy.
Nearly half of Trump’s statements fact-checked by PolitiFact fall into the “false” or “pants on fire” categories. Compare that with 12% for former President Barack Obama.
The Washington Post Fact Checker calculates that as of mid April, President Trump had made 18,000 “false or misleading claims.” The Fact Checker marked Obama’s 2017 departure with a 10 “biggest whoppers” story. Author Glenn Kessler told me the team never had reason to do a cumulative tally because “Obama spoke very carefully and had his speeches carefully vetted.”
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed 131 complaints and 61 lawsuits during the Trump administration, a much higher number than in previous administrations, says CREW communications director Jordan Libowitz. The group, which began operating in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration, filed 41 lawsuits before Bush left in early 2009, and nearly the same number in the first few years of Obama’s two terms.
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The spike during the Trump era is due to “the Trump administration’s complete disregard for ethics and the extreme difficulty we and others are having getting public records from the administration,” Libowitz told me. “The rule of thumb is that now you almost have to sue to get records out of some agencies.”
The unmatched secrecy is magnified by unmatched incompetence in leading a government. Trump has outpaced his five predecessors in “A Team” senior aide turnover at the White House, “and not just by a small margin,” Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institution calculated last month. And his Cabinet turnover is “off the charts,” she wrote last year. Many key jobs are either vacant or filled by temporary “acting” appointees.
Now it’s a ‘transition to greatness’
This doesn’t begin to get into all the ways Trump himself is personally exceptional: first president to be accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women; first president to retweet violent conspiracy theorists; first president who doesn’t respect the role of the free press; first president who routinely insults women, journalists, governors, foreigners, immigrants and people of color; first president to treat the Justice Department as his personal law firm and the disgrace of impeachment as license to purge government watchdogs; and first president to ignore, belittle and contradict not only his own law enforcement agencies but also, tragically, his own science and intelligence experts who warned of the coming pandemic.
Oversight purge:Trump’s latest ethical violation is firing the State Department’s inspector general
“Donald Trump said he would put America first, and now he has,” the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action said in an ad last month about how “the United States leads the world” in coronavirus cases and deaths. The Republican strategist Stuart Stevens has suggested a new campaign slogan for the president — “Trump 2020: Not everyone died!”
Trump’s actual 2020 slogan is “Keep America Great,” but in a rare bow to reality, he has recently been using the phrase “transition to greatness.” I’m not sure what Joe Biden has in mind, but this one could be a winner: “Make America Great Again.” And make the hats blue.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence