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Timothy L. O’Brien: America isn’t finished paying for Trump’s incompetence

23December 2020

In 2016, a few months before Donald Trump was elected president, I wrote a column about his long history as a mismanager that cited this chestnut from his book “Crippled America”:

“I realized that America doesn’t need more ‘all-talk, no-action’ politicians running things. It needs smart businesspeople who understand how to manage. We don’t need more political rhetoric — we need more common sense. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ — but if it is broke, let’s stop talking about it and fix it. I know how to fix it.”

Trump’s book, like all his nonfiction works of fiction, was a self-promotional exercise at odds with his true history as an inept bungler. The point of my column back then was that Trump was campaigning for a job that was likely to elude him, regardless of how voters felt about him. Nothing in his past had prepared him for the presidency or for effectively managing a bureaucracy as complex, influential and sprawling as the federal government.

“I know how to fix it,” was a hollow claim four years ago and it remains so today, as Trump winds down his last month in office. It’s also unfortunate that two primo examples of Trump’s ineptitude landed with full force over the past week. They’re reminders of the devastating consequences of living with a president who has no interest in putting his shoulder to the wheel so he can capably manage the country’s affairs.

The first example — what increasingly looks to be a haphazard rollout and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to the American public — shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Trump has been in denial about the severity and scope of the coronavirus threat since it first surfaced in the U.S., and he has never effectively marshaled federal messaging and oversight to help blunt its impact. He cared about hewing to his own idea of presidential role-playing more than the tedious and important work of coordinating public health agencies, the federal purse and federal powers so the government could play offense. More than 310,000 Americans are dead, and COVID-19 continues to savage every state.

Still, one reason we got vaccines so quickly is that Operation Warp Speed, the federal body that helped fund and orchestrate vaccine development, successfully carried out the mission the Trump administration gave it. Warp Speed’s other responsibility, however, is to help distribute the vaccine nationally, with logistical help from the military. And there’s reason to suspect that the government is mismanaging distribution.

Several states that were promised shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine said late last week that their orders had been substantially cut, prompting fears that Warp Speed won’t meet its delivery goals. The government said this was the result of states expediting their vaccine orders and Pfizer not having available supplies. But Pfizer pushed back against that narrative, saying it had vaccines sitting in warehouses awaiting shipment guidance.

Who might step in and settle these differences? The president. Is he doing that? No.

Trump, other than touting the availability of a vaccine, hasn’t used his bully pulpit to resolve distribution shortfalls. While it might seem odd that he isn’t trying harder to salvage part of his reputation by monitoring every facet of the vaccine rollout and fixing broken pieces, he’s being entirely consistent. Managing processes bores him, especially those that remind him of earlier failures. So he simply doesn’t do it.

Which brings us to our second example: The massive, global Russian cyberattack on government agencies and corporations that began last spring but was uncovered and made public only over the past several days. What have we heard from Trump?

Moments like this, when national security is at risk because the computer networks we all rely on to communicate, transact and function have been penetrated and plundered, are when presidents prove their mettle. Presidents also have much more latitude to act independently and quickly when national security is at stake. But Trump has been AWOL, refusing to say anything about the cyberattacks apart from a pair of Saturday tweets defending Russia, blaming China and minimizing the severity of the hack.

Perhaps some of this is due to the reality that Trump’s repeated coddling and solicitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin has had visible and detrimental consequences, including this recent cyberattack. Trump isn’t one to acknowledge that his dances with dictators weren’t really in his control. Perhaps he also realizes that he and his government were asleep at the switch for months while federal networks were being fleeced, and he’s not one to acknowledge a failure such as that, either.

But I also think much, if not all, of the explanation for Trump’s absence around the cyberattack is that he just doesn’t care. He knows he’s going to leave the White House soon, and trying to wrestle a difficult problem to the ground doesn’t interest him. Trump has always put himself first, whether he’s in the Oval Office, on the golf course, or sitting in his corner office in Trump Tower. As surprised as anyone that he won the election in 2016, he immediately began leaning on others to run the government for him and has never cared for the responsibilities that come with occupying the White House.

Competence should be a basic requirement for the presidency, but Trump managed to hoodwink his supporters so effectively that they either still consider him competent or are indifferent. He has few concerns himself because he’s a man born into wealth and privilege who has never worked particularly hard or suffered the more brutal consequences of his own ineptitude and malfeasance. He remains in character, alas, right to the bitter end of his presidency.

And the incompetence that has haunted Trump his entire career now haunts us.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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