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If you judge Donald Trump’s performance as president by the lowest of low bars, there has been a slight improvement in his handling of the coronavirus crisis in the last week. He no longer suggests that talk of the virus is a “hoax” by Democrats to make him look bad. He isn’t glad-handing supporters in violation of Center for Disease Control protocol. He’s surrounded himself with experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. He makes nods to necessary policies like social distancing.
But, evaluated by any reasonable standards, Trump is still a disaster. His daily press conferences are a farrago of untruths, a combination of outright lies and Trump misstating ideas he seems to barely understand. On Thursday’s briefing, Trump touted the existing anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a possible magic bullet, describing it as a potential “game-changer.” According to Trump, “It has shown very, very encouraging early results, and we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” The FDA had to clarify that chloroquine still had to be tested. According to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, “That’s a drug that the president has directed us to take a closer look at as to whether an expanded-use approach to that could be done to actually see if that benefits patients.” Dr. Fauci in an interview described evidence of the drug’s effectiveness as “anecdotal.” In other words, Trump wildly oversold medicine that hasn’t proven its effectiveness in a scientific setting.
Trump’s dishonesty is only one reason he’s the worst possible person to oversee a crisis that could kill millions and wreck the global economy. He also continues to maintain a ramshackle leadership style, with family members like Jared Kushner holding ill-defined power. According to The New York Times, Kushner is running an informal coronavirus team that is vexing government officials. The newspaper reports, “Kushner’s team is causing confusion among many officials involved in the response, who say they are unsure who is in charge given Kushner’s dual role as senior adviser and Trump family member.”
Trump is totally and irredeemably unfit for power in this crisis. This should be obvious to not just his political opponents but also Republicans in Washington, who know better than anyone else Trump’s character flaws.
The current economic crisis gives Democrats a path to change the situation. Since Democratic votes are needed for any stimulus, the party has real leverage to force changes in the White House. And given the fact that Trump’s temperamental unfitness is well known, some congressional Republicans might also be on board.
Democrats should use their leverage to push for the creation of a coronavirus czar—a figure with broad executive power to oversee the federal response to the crisis. In normal circumstances, the appointment of a “czar” (like the various drug czars since the Nixon administration) should be opposed. Czars tend to be autocratic, not responsive to political accountability, and adverse to transparency. But given the unfolding tragedy of Trump’s handling of the biggest medical emergency in American history, a coronavirus czar is an ideal work-around. It’s the one way key policy-making decisions can be taken away from Trump.
Trump himself might like the idea, because it would be a way of giving his government some bipartisan legitimacy in a time of turmoil. Also, the very idea of a czar might tickle Trump’s authoritarian fancy.
Consider for example, the Defense Protection Act, which Trump has enabled but refuses to use. The act allows Trump to take control of factories and use them to manufacture and distribute medical goods. Asked why he wasn’t using this power, Trump responded, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work…. the federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items, and then shipping. We’re not a shipping clerk. As with testing—the governors are supposed to be doing it.”
This is a typical example of Trump’s shirking responsibility. Many governors are in fact stepping up to the plate, but they don’t have anywhere near the power a president has.
Let’s say Trump appointed Elizabeth Warren as the coronavirus czar. She could do all the things Trump has avoided. She could commandeer factories to produce ventilators and hospital masks. She could deploy the Army Corp of Engineers to build makeshift hospitals. She could push the Federal Reserve to guarantee loans to states and cities that are on the verge of bankruptcy.
Most crucially, as coronavirus czar Warren could order the federal government to have a moonshot mission to make free, widespread testing of the coronavirus available to everyone in America. The current push for social distancing is helping slow down the virus’s spread, but the only hope of containing it and keeping the economy alive is to have widespread testing on the model of South Korea.
Trump doesn’t even see the necessity of free, widespread testing. His attitude is, “The governors are supposed to do it.”
Of course, Trump might not accept Warren in this position, given his allergy to strong women. Warren is by far the best person for the job, but she might have to wait for a Biden presidency to take it.
In the meantime, there are other plausible candidates. Trump seems to have formed a strong bond with Andrew Cuomo, who has had a take-charge attitude as New York governor. Although Trump and Cuomo have fought in the past, they now seem to work well together, in part because they both have in-your-face New York personalities. Cuomo has always had Caesarist tendencies, so the position of czar would suit him.
Another good candidate would be Ronald Klain, who oversaw the handling of the Ebola crisis under Barack Obama.
It almost doesn’t matter who the coronavirus czar is, as long as this person has a certain level of basic competence. After all, any minimally adept person can hardly do worse than Trump. The main point is to create the position so the full power of the federal government can be unleashed in this emergency.