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Trump’s Botched Coronavirus Speech

The president's speech was a political and substantive failure.

The president’s speech on the outbreak last night went over like a lead balloon. The new 30-day ban on travel from some parts of Europe took our allies completely by surprise, because they had not been consulted about it at all:

European officials strongly condemned President Trump’s decision to severely restrict travel from Europe to the United States on Thursday, a sudden move that took them by surprise and that many saw as politically motivated.

Of all the slights between Washington and Europe in recent years, the new travel restrictions represented a blow an order of magnitude beyond previous disputes. In a short statement on Thursday morning rare in its directness, the European Union expressed only exasperation.

It is not the most urgent problem right now, but once the outbreak is over our allies are going to remember how our government treated them in the middle of a pandemic. Instead of the solidarity and cooperation that one would expect between allies, they get a gratuitous travel ban.

Trump also botched his explanation of the details of his own policy, which created panic among Americans still in Europe who thought that they might be cut off from coming home. That isn’t the case, but that didn’t stop a run on last-minute airline tickets because Americans thought that they had just a couple days to get out:

Markets also tanked because the president initially said that the ban would also apply to goods as well as people:

There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings, and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.

Administration officials had to issue multiple clarifications to reassure the public that the president had not meant what he had just told us. It turns out that “Europe” only refers to people who have been in Schengen zone nations, and it doesn’t apply to goods at all. The U.K. was exempted, which makes the targeting of the ban seem driven by political bias more than anything else. That was not lost on European leaders:

Many policymakers said Thursday that the fact that the travel ban excludes Britain, where coronavirus is already spreading, but which is led by a populist leader who has sought to build ties to Trump, was a sign that the ban was political rather than driven by science.

When officials have to contradict the president’s message within hours of the speech because the president gave out bad information, it defeats the point of delivering an address to the nation. As is often the case with this president, it would have been better if he had said nothing.

The multiple failures to communicate the policy clearly were nothing compared to the uselessness of a travel ban at this point in the outbreak. The virus is already here and spreading mostly undetected, and barring some Europeans from coming here won’t do anything to stop that. In addition to inflicting more economic damage on our allies, a new travel ban is mostly useless at best and it is much more likely to be a harmful distraction from what needs to be done. A former Homeland Security Advisor to Trump commented on this earlier this morning:

One of the biggest errors in the speech was Trump’s unjustified boasting that “no nation is more prepared” than the U.S. when it seems clear that we are still shockingly unprepared. Jeremy Konyndyk was disgusted by what he heard:

The president barely addressed the question of testing, and what he did say wasn’t accurate. All that he said about that was this:

Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly, day by day. We are moving very quickly.

That would be excellent news if it were true, but this is another case of the president misleading the public to believe that things are better than they are. In fact, it remains very difficult for people to get tested here.

The U.S. has the lowest per capita testing of any country. South Korea appears to have gotten their outbreak under control for now, but the U.S. is lagging far behind them when it comes to testing:

South Korea’s testing total so far, when broken down into number of tests performed per million citizens, seems to be about 700 times as high than the US’s.

Now it appears that our labs are running out of the raw materials needed to conduct the tests:

A looming shortage in lab materials is threatening to delay coronavirus test results and cause officials to undercount the number of Americans with the virus.

The slow pace of coronavirus testing has created a major gap in the U.S. public health response. The latest problem involves an inability to prepare samples for testing, creating uncertainties in how long it will take to get results.

CDC Director Robert Redfield told POLITICO on Tuesday that he is not confident that U.S. labs have an adequate stock of the supplies used to extract genetic material from any virus in a patient’s sample — a critical step in coronavirus testing.

So testing is not “expanding rapidly” and the U.S. is not “moving very quickly.” Testing may be expanding, but it is not nearly widespread enough and it is not happening as quickly as needed.

The president’s speech was a political and substantive failure. We should just tune out the noise coming from the White House and pay attention to what health officials and medical professionals have to tell us instead. Dr. Scott Gottlieb outlined what Americans need to start doing immediately in this thread:

The cancellation of large events is an important start, but he also urges everyone to stop attending small gatherings as well: