President Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force at the White House on Tuesday.

Time will tell if it was a defining moment that delineated the Trump administration between “before coronavirus and after.”

Last week, PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked President Donald Trump the following: “You said that you don’t take responsibility but you did disband the White House pandemic office. And the officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly, so what responsibility do you take for that?”

Before responding to Alcindor, the president reflexively said, “That’s a nasty question.” The president then made a definite distinction between the administration and himself. “When you say me, I didn’t do it. We have a group of people [in the administration]… you said we did that, I don’t know anything about it!”

This is not the first time the president has misspoken during the outbreak of the coronavirus, but it may be the most notable. He made several inaccurate statements that necessitated correction by members of the administration. He and his surrogates initially dismissed the virus as fake news — a Democratic hoax. Without considering the validity of Alcindor’s question, the president said with the veracity of a self-absorbed 15-year-old, “I didn’t do it.”

But in a letter dated May 18, 2018, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote to the president about the office closings that Yamiche referred last week. In closing, Brown wrote: “In our globalized world, where diseases are no more than a plane ride away, we must do all we can to prepare for the next inevitable outbreak and keep Americans safe from disease.”

The coronavirus makes us acutely aware, as the Rev. Martin Luther King stated, “We may have arrived on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” But in the cadence of the late actor Strother Martin, what we have here is failure in leadership!

It’s quite possible the president didn’t know the office had been closed, but that does not absolve him of responsibility; “I didn’t do it” won’t suffice.

This is a very different leadership style from, say, President John F. Kennedy, who after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 took immediate responsibility, stating, “I’m the responsible officer of the government.”

The president, regardless of party, must make deposits of universal goodwill prior to a crisis (FDR: Pearl Harbor; Ronald Reagan: Challenger) or rise to the occasion with little time for preparation (George W. Bush: 9/11 aftermath) in order to meet the needs of the moment.

Trust is paramount. If trust is earned, leaders are afforded the space to make mistakes. It also requires one to display a unique combination of empathy, compassion, confidence without certainty and a sense that we’re all in this thing together.

Where can one cite examples of the current president displaying any of those qualities during this crisis? Was it when he baselessly claimed the situation was under control on Feb. 24? Or Feb. 26, when he predicted the number of U.S. cases is “going very substantially down” to “close to zero”? Or his incoherent March 7 performance at the Center for Disease Control? Was it his Q&A with Alcindor?

At a time when America needed reassurance from the president, it was handed knee-jerk supposition. No rational human would blame the president for the coronavirus pandemic; he falters in his inability to rise to the moment. For those wary of the president’s ability to handle crisis when he assumed the office, the spread of the coronavirus became the day they dreaded.

The president built a binary, transactional governing hierarchy based on three sets of criteria: How would it benefit him; how would it benefit his base; and lastly how would it benefit everyone else? Because the first two were often interchangeable, rarely did the third consideration factor in the president’s thinking.

We’ve become acutely aware of the coronavirus’ bipartisan reach. It is infecting residents of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district in San Francisco. Moreover, in a global pandemic, there is no viable “America First!” policy.

When everyone is grappling for a new normal, where few actions from last week can be taken for granted today, what the president says and how he says it matters if he is to engender trust.

The president saying that he knew the coronavirus was a pandemic before it was classified as such, when video evidence says otherwise, doesn’t help. I’m hoping against hope the president can pivot from his innate desires, which exacerbate an already horrific situation.

Might the president heed the words of Winston Churchill: “There is no worst mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away.”

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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