The president finally declared a national emergency—“two very big words,” he admiringly observed—which will allow the federal government to provide much more support in the fight against the novel coronavirus. He announced the news in a Friday press conference that was late, unfocused, and confusing to follow—in other words, thoroughly in keeping with the administration’s response to the pandemic.
The main thrust of the announcement, which took place in the White House Rose Garden, was this: The Trump administration has taken bold, proactive steps to forge what Vice President Mike Pence called “a historic public-private partnership” to expand coronavirus testing. Health care companies LabCorp and Roche Diagnostics have introduced new tests that should increase the country’s capabilities in the coming weeks. Retailers like Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, and Target will set up drive-through testing centers in their parking lots. And Google is supposedly working on a website—by Sunday night we’ll even know when it will be ready to launch, according to Pence—that will direct symptomatic people to those drive-throughs. The plan, as the White House’s new coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx put it, is “proactive, leaning forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
Which curve would that be, exactly? Whereas governments like Singapore and South Korea quickly instituted testing protocols when the coronavirus reached their borders, the slow and error-filled rollout of testing in the US has been the most critical failure of the federal government response to the pandemic thus far. More than a month after the first confirmed case on American soil, the press and social media are full of accounts of patients still unable to get tested even with doctors’ requests. Even today, in response to repeated questions from reporters, no one in the administration could say precisely when sufficient tests will be available.
A key purpose of today’s press conference was to convince you that none of this is the administration’s fault. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said in response to a question about the lack of tests. “Because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.” After weeks denying that there even was a testing shortage, this is apparently Trump’s new line: that excessive red tape, not the administration’s own fecklessness, has hampered US testing capabilities.
This picks up on Trump’s false claim from last week that a rule adopted by the Obama administration had slowed the government’s response. In fact, there was no such rule. And yet, grading on the most generous possible curve, the president’s new theory of the case represents progress. Just a week ago, Trump was declaring that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.” At least now he admits that this isn’t true. The lie has shifted from “it’s not a problem” to “it’s not my problem.”
So it went in response to other questions. Why did the Trump’s administration get rid of the national security officials responsible for responding to global health crises? “When you say me—I didn’t do it; we have a group of people,” the president said. “You say we did that, I don’t know anything about it.” Why isn’t Trump self-quarantining after posing for a picture with a Brazilian official who has tested positive for the virus? “There was somebody that they say has it, I have no idea who he is.”
Even as he denied responsibility for the government’s missteps, Trump was eager to take credit for restricting travel from China and Europe, which, he claimed, “saved a lot of lives.” But with more than a thousand confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US, and likely many thousands more unconfirmed, it’s far too late for any travel restrictions to have much impact.