Back in 2015, I wrote about how President Donald Trump and other 2016 GOP candidates for president had responded to Chinese financial distress with an awful lot of hyperbole, pointing out, "Candidates don't do too well when they panic when panic doesn't seem appropriate." It called to mind the panicky, xenophobic, god-awful 2014 response from Trump and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
As a candidate, Trump was particularly prone to crying wolf and overreacting to news events. In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, Trump called "for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on" in December 2015. In the summer of 2016, Trump claimed that the stock market was "all a big bubble" that could come crashing down at the hint of higher interest rates.
Trump was not viewed as a particularly calm candidate. It seemed reasonable to be worried that he would wildly overreact to any fast-acting crisis that took place when he was president.
As it turns out, that has not really happened. To be sure, Trump has demonstrated a quick trigger, using military force in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons and Iranian militia's breaching of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The latter looks like an overreaction, but it is also worth noting that Trump stood down after the Iranians retaliated with ballistic missile strikes on U.S. bases that did not result in any loss of life. In the face of other military provocations by Iran and others, Trump chose not to escalate.
This should be reassuring. Trump's temper tantrums and poor impulse control are well-known aspects of his decision-making style. That he has largely refrained from overreacting to potential crises seems like a good thing!
My concern turned out to be misplaced. He has not overreacted to the risk of disaster. Instead, he has frequently underreacted.
Consider that Trump has done this with respect to North Korea's worrisome nuclear program. Despite repeated tests of short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, Trump insists that all is well and Kim Jong Un is a good friend.
Last week, after news broke that 34 U.S. soldiers in Iraq had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries from the Iranian missile attack, Trump waved it away. He said at his press conference in Davos, Switzerland, "I heard they had headaches and a couple of other things ... and I can report it is not very serious." Actually, it is serious, and Trump's flippant dismissal prompted the Veterans of Foreign Wars to call on him to apologize for his remarks.
Finally, Trump's initial reaction to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, was surprisingly chill. Last week he assured CNBC's Squawk Box that there was little reason for concern: "We have it totally under control," Trump said. "It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control."
Since Trump said that, the data suggests that maybe matters are not completely under control. The virus has a high infection rate and has spread beyond China. As of Monday five Americans were infected and the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease said, "We need to prepare as if this is a pandemic, but we hope it is not." The contagion is hardly limited to the disease; financial markets are starting to freak out a bit as well.
Democrats have jumped on Trump for his relative passivity. Ron Klain, who was Barack Obama's Ebola czar in 2014, wrote in The Washington Post that Trump had "failed his first test in dealing with the virus" and that "While there is no reason to panic, we simply do not know, with China's seventh-largest city under a lockdown, how serious it will become." Joe Biden has also trashed Trump's response, writing in USA Today that, "Trump's demonstrated failures of judgment and his repeated rejection of science make him the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge."
Why has Trump not demonstrated more concern? It is possible that his national security and public health teams have properly briefed him, and that he has processed that information and responded with the appropriate degree of calm. By "possible" I'm telling you there's a chance, but not much of one.
Far more likely is that Trump, now that he is president, wants to minimize any possible emergency that would blow back on him, rather than call attention to the possibility of something serious. The Democrats warning about the virus will make him double down on that approach. Much like his secretary of state, Trump hates to admit error, so he's locked in now. He tweeted Monday that, "We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus. Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch. We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!"
Trump is right about that - the CDC has does outstanding work on the coronavirus. And the WHO's latest update suggests that the international disease vector remains limited to those people traveling from Wuhan.
If Trump starts to overcorrect to the coronavirus, the results are likely to be counterproductve. Let's hope he's right and the coronavirus is under control. That would mean he handled this well. His tendency to minimize negative stories, however, makes me wonder what will happen if the outbreak proves to be more serious.