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There was lots of reporting this weekend on the inside story of the Trump administration's coronavirus response, most of which boiled down to public health experts flailing around to deal with the epidemic while Donald Trump himself insists everything's fine as long as you just believe it's fine. The Associated Press reports that the White House stomped out a proposal to warn vulnerable people, especially older Americans, not to fly. The New York Times detailed yesterday how Trump has constantly gotten in the way of letting the scientists guide the response, and reported today that the government's latest guidance, telling older folks to avoid taking cruises, was put in place by the State Department and Mike Pence's coronavirus task force without Trump being consulted. And NBC News reports that for the most part, insiders in the executive branch have resigned themselves to trying to do their job while knowing Trump won't listen to any of their calls to base what he says about the outbreak on reality.

Just about what you'd expect in this administration of bumblers, trolls, and hacks, only in the face of a crisis that has far more than political implications.


The Times story on Trump's resistance to ever doing anything that might look bad for him, regardless of how it might harm the response and cause him more political damage down the road, is some essential first-draft-of-history stuff, more documentation that the Great Man only thinks in terms of his own "ratings," because the entire country is his personal reality TV show. The piece starts with Trump's predictably foul reaction to the February 25 announcement by Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, that the "disruption to everyday life might be severe," and that schools, businesses, and large gatherings could have to close or change how they operate.

The president immediately got on the phone with Alex M. Azar II, his secretary of health and human services. That call scared people, he shouted, referring to Ms. Messonnier's warnings. Are we at the point that we will have to start closing schools? the president added, alarmed, according to an official who heard about the call.

Future reports, we're sure, will specify the obscenities and personal insults Trump directed at Messonnier. Through it all, Trump has insisted on optimistic predictions, even when they had nothing to do with reality. Stopping flights from China meant there'd be no cases in the US. There were only 15 cases, and soon that would be zero. We'd have a vaccine in a few weeks, maybe. The virus would vanish by April. And so on. I've said this before, but it reads a hell of a lot like the early chapters of And the Band Played On.

And here's a surprise: According to insiders who spoke to the Times, in late January, when aides first proposed a ban on travel to and from China, Trump was initially

skeptical, though he would later claim that everyone around him had been against the idea. The two countries were in delicate trade negotiations. Was this the time to provoke China? he asked. And what about the consequences on the economy?

And now of course, he brags to Sean Hannity that he did the smart but politically incorrect thing — not that it halted the spread of the virus; and even if it slowed it down, the administration wasted any time that bought, particularly when the CDC's test kits for the virus didn't work and the agency insisted on developing new tests instead of using tests developed in Europe.

The Times piece is also quite useful as a resource for future college term papers, since it collects so many of Trump's rosy but utterly wrong pronouncements, like his comments in early February, while the World Health Organization was tracking the virus's worldwide spread. No big, said Trump, repeating a rightwing media myth: "By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away." He was still expecting a miracle by late February, although by then we'd bet somebody had told him he was wrong.

And even on Friday, during his visit to the CDC, Trump insisted on talking about the virus as mostly a problem for his ratings, saying he didn't want passengers trapped on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the California coast to be allowed back into the country, explaining he didn't like the numbers.

"They would like to have the people come off ," he said. "I would like to have the people stay." The president said he would allow health experts to make the final decision, but he made clear again where he stood.

His concern? It would increase the tally for the number of people infected in the United States. "Because I like the numbers being where they are," the president said.

The real surprise from yesterday's Times story is that Mike Pence comes off looking relatively aware of what an emergency response should look like:

[Although] Mr. Pence has had some mixed messages of his own — he promised more tests before they were available — the White House has since displayed more discipline. Mr. Pence holds twice daily conference calls with officials from across the country, and a virus task force he leads issues daily talking points, with comment from the health professionals, to make sure the message is consistent.

That concern for at least seeming competent shows up again in today's story on the decision by the State Department to post a travel advisory warning elderly Americans and others most at risk from the virus to stay off cruise ships. The Times says Pence mostly pulled an end run on the lying reassurer in chief, according to an unidentified insider.

It was Vice President Mike Pence [...] who signed off on the State Department's announcement and Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state and another task force member, who formalized it, a senior official familiar with the decision said. The final call on Sunday did not reach Mr. Trump's level, the official said.

That decision came after a meeting with cruise line bigwigs, who apparently were begging the government to take action so the cruise lines wouldn't have to take the heat for telling nice grandparents from Minnesota that they wouldn't be allowed to take that Caribbean cruise they'd saved up for. Plus uniformity of guidelines and all that. (Just another reminder that, free market rhetoric to the contrary, business often likes regulatory certainty, damn it.)

The ship Trump fretted about, the Big Damn Princess, will be docking in Oakland today (at a non-passenger terminal) and its passengers placed in quarantine at military bases, some in California, others around the country. Here's hoping all the government workers assisting them get protective equipment this time out!

So good on Mike Pence! We like to reinforce good behavior. The cruise ship warning, we should note, came after Trump's White House had earlier shot down a CDC proposal to warn at-risk people to avoid both cruises and air travel, as the AP reported yesterday. (The administration was quick to call the AP a bunch of lying liarpantses, calling the AP report "a complete fiction.")

Saturday, Pence instead made a far more general statement, simply saying, "If you're a senior citizen with a serious underlying health condition, this would be a good time to practice common sense and to avoid activities including traveling on a cruise line," but not actually imposing the formal State Department warning until Sunday. We presume Donald Trump will call for massive subsidies for the cruise companies around 3:00 Eastern today.

As coronavirus continues to spread, look for a lot more reporting like this NBC News story about government health officials just giving up on trying to make Trump think about science, since everyone knows he's lying anyway. NBC News notes Trump isn't at all receptive to the idea that he might want to stop having great big slob rallies, so when people start coming away from those with infections, look for him to blame the media for never telling people they should wash their damn hands. Yes, even Republicans.

[AP / NYT / NYT / NBC News]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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