Coronavirus

Trump’s Unheralded Reason

On coronavirus, the president is listening to the experts

Donald Trump
Getty Images

Contrary to the impression one forms from immersion in the news of the day over the past four years, we are quite certain President Donald Trump is not accorded sufficient credit where he is generally found most wanting, particularly by his media critics: on matters of reason and judgment.

The coronavirus crisis that now consumes his administration has shown the president to be a man of some courage and intellectual dexterity. He promptly exercised his authority to limit travel of foreign nationals from China into the United States by a proclamation issued on Jan. 31. He seems to be the only observer giving himself credit for the decision.

That same day, Joe Biden admonished Trump for his xenophobia and other alleged sins: "We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science—not Donald Trump's record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear mongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency." When Trump subsequently referred to "the Chinese virus," Biden further criticized Trump for "xenophobic fear-mongering."  In a March 27 fact check, PolitiFact counseled that "experts say" Trump's reference to "the Chinese virus" could "foster discrimination toward people of Chinese or Asian origin."

Even when Trump is right, he's wrong.

Though derided for his disinclination to follow the advice of experts, Trump has relied on the medical experts advising him on the crisis to defer the easing of current social distancing restrictions he had argued for just days before. Having expressed the hope that he could ease the restrictions by Easter, the president reluctantly came to the conclusion that prudence dictated an extension of the current regime devastating the economy—an unprecedented economic contraction that is entirely self-inflicted, but necessary. We will cut off a limb to save the rest of the body.

Addressing Trump's decision to extend the current guidelines, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that he and coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx "made it very clear to him that if we pull back on what we were doing and didn't extend [the social distancing guidelines], there would be more avoidable suffering and avoidable death. So it was a pretty clear decision on his part."

Fauci put it this way: "We showed him the data, he looked at the data, and he got it right away," Fauci said. "Dr. Debbie Birx and I went in together and leaned over the desk and said, ‘Here is the data, take a look.' He looked at them, he understood them, and he just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we got to do it.'"

Sounds like a reasonable decision. If we had to guess Trump's way forward, we think that Trump will follow the path charted by Scott Gottlieb and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute. Perhaps that is because it's the only one we've seen so far, but it seems to balance caution with necessity. It's reasonable.

The problem, however, is that we can't go on like this indefinitely. As Trump has observed—reasonably—the cure threatens to be worse than the disease. The press didn't give him any credit for that observation either. If only it were interested in getting the White House to flesh out the cost-benefit analysis implicit in the scenarios it is contemplating, it might yet serve a true public purpose. Yet the press prefers to play the fool for Trump.