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- Most leaders lack the discipline to do routine risk-based horizon scanning, and fewer still develop the requisite contingency plans. Even rarer is the leader who has the foresight to correctly identify the top threat far enough in advance to develop and implement those plans. Suffice it to say, the Trump administration has cumulatively failed, both in taking seriously the specific, repeated intelligence community warnings about a coronavirus outbreak and in vigorously pursuing the nationwide response initiatives commensurate with the predicted threat. The federal government alone has the resources and authorities to lead the relevant public and private stakeholders to confront the foreseeable harms posed by the virus. Unfortunately, Trump officials made a series of judgments (minimizing the hazards of Covid-19) and decisions (refusing to act with the urgency required) that have needlessly made Americans far less safe. In short, the Trump administration forced a catastrophic strategic surprise onto the American people. But unlike past strategic surprises – Pearl Harbor, the Iranian revolution of 1979, or especially 9/11 – the current one was brought about by unprecedented indifference, even willful negligence. Whereas, for example, the 9/11 Commission Report assigned blame for the al-Qaida attacks on the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan through George W Bush, the unfolding coronavirus crisis is overwhelmingly the sole responsibility of the current White House.
- By now, there are three painfully obvious observations about Trump’s leadership style that explain the worsening coronavirus pandemic that Americans now face. First, there is the fact that once he believes absolutely anything – no matter how poorly thought-out, ill-informed or inaccurate – he remains completely anchored to that initial impression or judgment. Leaders are unusually hubristic and overconfident; for many, the fact that they have risen to elevated levels of power is evidence of their inherent wisdom. But truly wise leaders authentically solicit feedback and criticism, are actively open thinkers, and are capable of changing their minds. By all accounts, Trump lacks these enabling competencies.
- Second, Trump’s judgments are highly transmissible, infecting the thinking and behavior of nearly every official or adviser who comes in contact with the initial carrier. Unsurprisingly, the president surrounds himself with people who look, think and act like he does. Yet, his inaccurate or disreputable comments also have the remarkable ability to become recycled by formerly honorable military, intelligence and business leaders. And if somebody does not consistently parrot the president’s proclamations with adequate intensity, they are fired, or it is leaked that their firing could be imminent at any time – most notably the recent report of the president’s impatience with the indispensable Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
- And, third, the poor judgments soon contaminate all the policymaking arms of the federal government with almost no resistance or even reasonable questioning. Usually, federal agencies are led by those officials whom the White House believes are best able to implement policy. These officials have usually enjoyed some degree of autonomy; not under Trump. Even historically non-partisan national security or intelligence leadership positions have been filled by people who are ideologically aligned with the White House, rather than endowed with the experience or expertise needed to push back or account for the concerns raised by career non-political employees. Thus, an initial incorrect assumption or statement by Trump cascades into day-to-day policy implementation.
- Given that Trump concluded early on that the coronavirus simply could not present a threat to the United States, perhaps there is nothing that the intelligence community, medical experts employing epidemiological models, or public health officials could have told the White House that would have made any difference.
- The White House detachment and nonchalance during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will be among the most costly decisions of any modern presidency. These officials were presented with a clear progression of warnings and crucial decision points far enough in advance that the country could have been far better prepared. But the way that they squandered the gifts of foresight and time should never be forgotten, nor should the reason they were squandered: Trump was initially wrong, so his inner circle promoted that wrongness rhetorically and with inadequate policies for far too long, and even today. Americans will now pay the price for decades.