The president addressed the nation last night from the solemn setting of the Oval Office seeking to convey calm and competence. Instead, he projected ineptness.
President Trump’s primetime speech erred on the side of toughness. He heaped scorn on China for allowing the coronavirus pandemic to escape its borders and castigated America’s allies in Europe for failing to contain the contagion. He announced broad restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Europe, save the U.K., for the next 30 days. And he outlined a series of executive and legislative measures that could be forthcoming to mitigate the paralyzing effect this virus could have on American life.
But the viewer’s sense of unease grew with each dropped article and every ad-lib. And almost from the moment the cameras cut away from the president, it soon became apparent that the 11-minute address was a debacle.
When announcing the travel ban, Trump said that “these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.” But the White House soon clarified that travel restrictions would not apply to goods exchanged between the U.S. and its largest trading partner, the European Union. This was no small error. Rather than calm markets, as the president has tried so hard to do over the last few weeks, this misstatement sent stock market futures into a tailspin.
That’s not all. The president’s travel ban isn’t nearly as stringent as he advertised. The Department of Homeland Security soon clarified that the U.S. was not suspending “all travel from Europe,” as the president said; only entry into the U.S. for foreign nationals who have been in the 26 countries that are part of the visa-free Schengen zone. It does not apply to U.S. legal permanent residents or the immediate family of U.S. citizens. Moreover, according to EU commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen, Trump’s policy “was taken unilaterally and without consultation.” America’s allies were blindsided.
But the mistakes didn’t end there. The president assured Americans that the nation’s health insurers “have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments.” But they had not. A spokesperson for the America’s Health Insurance Plans trade association later confirmed to reporters that insurers had agreed to suspend copayments for testing alone, not the treatment of the disease. Either the president misspoke, the prepared text of his national address was irredeemably sloppy, or the White House has not been coordinating closely with the health-insurance industry ahead of the address. Whatever the explanation, it isn’t acceptable.
Trump also advertised his intention to seek tax relief for American workers who incur economic costs as a result of the pandemic, including a payroll tax holiday. The proposal has encountered some resistance in Congress, but the president had not broken the logjam ahead of this speech. Trump simply asked Congress to provide Americans with the relief he sought but announced no buy-in from the federal legislature. Nor did he put much pressure on lawmakers to meet his demands. There was no timetable, deadline, or even a request for key members of Congress to come to the White House.
And then there’s the politics of a speech which was calibrated to please everyone and therefore likely reassured no one. For Americans who believe that travel restrictions are a prudent response to the outbreak, Trump’s approach is going to seem like a half measure. Exempted nations like Great Britain, Ireland, and Croatia are not unaffected by the coronavirus. The U.K. has had more than 450 confirmed cases. This loophole renders Trump’s contingency riddled with holes. It’s hard to find a public health expert who was calling for blanket travel restrictions, so it’s reasonable to assume the maneuver was political in nature. But the president was going to be criticized no matter what kind of travel restrictions he imposed, so why the circumspection?
Those who are opposed to or agnostic about travel restrictions couldn’t be pleased with Trump’s performance either. They note—accurately, to a degree—that the problem is no longer what Trump called a “foreign virus,” but community transmission right here at home. As of March 11, there were more than 1,300 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S., and isolating the disease means scaling up testing capacity to identify and sequester the less severe infections that do not require hospitalization. Trump’s speech was light on specifics as to how the nation plans to cope with this outbreak if it expands exponentially. He didn’t define testing goals, didn’t preview efforts to expand access to ICU beds and ventilators, and failed to outline federal emergency guidelines. Except for his desire to see tax relief for workers drawing a paycheck, he left vague the contingencies he’d like to see for displaced workers.
In the hours that followed Trump’s speech, the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department scrambled to clean up the mess left by the president. There is no excuse for that kind of carelessness in a prepared address to the nation, much less one given amid emergency circumstances. The cumulative effect of these errors and compromise palliative measures was to leave the nation less confident than it was before Trump spoke. The president might have been better off keeping quiet.