Why are some leaders so reluctant to admit that in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, they were slow to realize the seriousness of the threat?
That’s the charge leveled against President Trump daily. Just look at the number of times various critics have said he has “blood on his hands.” Trump has denied responsibility, and has argued that rather than being slow off the mark, he was actually quick to respond.
There is much angry debate on that point. What is clear now is that more than a few officials around the country were slow to act. And some of them in high positions — not as high as president of the United States, but quite powerful — are reluctant to admit it.
Take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has said that the president’s downplaying of coronavirus has cost American lives. “His denial at the beginning was deadly,” she said last month on CNN. “As the president fiddles, people are dying.”
But look back a few weeks. On Feb. 24 — a time many Democrats accuse Trump of being oblivious to the danger — Pelosi was home in San Francisco and encouraged people to visit Chinatown, with its shops and restaurants.
“What we’re trying to do today is to say, everything is fine here,” Pelosi told reporters. “Come, because precautions have been taken. We think it’s very safe to be in Chinatown and hope that others will come.”
Recently Pelosi appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” and host Chris Wallace asked her, “If the president underplayed the threat in the early days, Speaker Pelosi, didn’t you as well?”
It was the perfect opportunity for Pelosi to admit that she had misjudged the hazard and to draw a contrast with the president’s refusal to concede error. But instead, Pelosi not only refused to acknowledge any mistake, she actually claimed that her encouragement of crowds during the pandemic was an actual virtue.
“No,” she told Wallace. “What we’re trying to do is to end the discrimination, the stigma, that was going out against the Asian-American community. In fact, if you will look, the record will show that our Chinatown has been a model of containing and preventing the virus. So I’m confident in our folks there and thought it was necessary to offset some of the things that the president and others were saying about Asian-Americans and making them a target, a target of violence across the country — hate crimes.”
“But forgive me,” Wallace followed up, “don’t you think that you, when you’re out walking ... and saying that there’s no threat, it’s perfectly safe here — weren’t you also adding to this perception that there wasn’t such a threat generally?”
“No,” Pelosi repeated. “I was saying that you should not discriminate against Chinese-Americans as some in our administration were doing by the way they were labeling the flu and that — no indeed. And again, I think if you check the record, and it’s current, you will see that Chinatown has been a model in all of this.”
San Francisco’s Chinatown has indeed done a good job against the virus. But it has done so by employing some of the measures, like social distancing and stay-at-home orders, that Pelosi ignored in her Feb. 24 remarks. The fact is, Pelosi encouraged what would, by today’s standards, be judged risky behavior. In her apparent desire to advertise the appeal of Chinatown, she encouraged people to do the sort of things that health officials have advised against.
Pelosi’s inability to assess her own decisions spurred another moment in the Fox interview that would have been funny had not the circumstances been so serious. When Wallace asked the House speaker if her decision to engage in partisan back-and-forth with President Trump is constructive, she answered:
“I’ll tell you why I came to that. I was so prayerful on Easter. It was one of the first days I didn’t have to be working every minute, and I could reflect and be prayerful. And what I decided was that the president has made many mistakes.”
Oftentimes in prayerful reflection, one focuses on one’s own shortcomings. On Easter Sunday, Pelosi spent her prayerful moments dwelling on her rival’s faults.
She wasn’t alone in dodging blame, of course. In the critical month of February, and even later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged people to ride the subway, go out to restaurants and to attend a parade in New York’s Chinatown on Feb. 9. On March 2, de Blasio tweeted that he was “encouraging New Yorkers to go on with your lives and get out on the town despite coronavirus.”
Like Pelosi, de Blasio, who has accused the Trump administration of “malpractice” in the crisis, denies any misjudgment. “We should not be focusing, in my view, on anything looking back on any level of government right now,” he told CNN on March 29. “This is just about how we save lives going forward.”
Unlike San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been an absolute disaster. The New York City region is in far, far worse shape than any other part of the nation — indeed, than any other country in the world.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also been reluctant to admit fault. Yes, he has conceded that New York has been “behind” fighting the virus. “We have been behind it from day one since it got here,” Cuomo said on March 31. “And we’ve been playing catch-up.” But at the same time, Cuomo refuses to admit that any of his own decisions might have made things worse.
For example, The New York Times recently reported that California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order when his state had 675 confirmed cases of the virus. Cuomo waited until New York had more than 7,000 confirmed cases to do the same.
And yet when Cuomo was asked on April 8 if he had been slow to act, his denial was positively Trumpian. “No, no,” he said. “I think New York was early, and I think the actions we took were more dramatic than most.”
It would be reasonable to argue that this time, at the peak of the crisis, is no time to discuss blame. But anyone listening to the national conversation knows that horse is long out of the barn. At some point, amid never-ending discussions of President Trump’s alleged culpability, the conversation will turn to some prominent Democrats, as well.