Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is predictably chaotic, vengeful, irresponsible, and impulsive. His actions have worsened the epidemic, they have led to unnecessary deaths and to a very painful economic lockdown. Coming in the year before he is up for re-election, this seems self-defeating: if Trump could re-run history I have little doubt he would take aggressive action to nip the epidemic in the bud. That said, the political strategy that is emerging from his chaotic approach to emergency management is actually quite shrewd.
As President, Trump will naturally get credit if things go well. If the epidemic ends quickly and the economy roars back to life he can take a victory lap even if his actions make this outcome less likely. Trump understands this: what he is worried about is being blamed if things go badly.
It might seem that the need to avoid blame would give him an incentive to competently manage the crisis – to coordinate the distribution of ventilators and personal protective equipment, for example, but he is not even trying to do this. (Exhibit A: putting Jared in charge.) The reason is that he understands that any effort to actively manage the epidemic will make him the target of criticism for problems even if his actions actually make problems less likely or severe. If he takes responsibility for distributing masks or ventilators, then every time a shipment gets lost in an airport, every time a patient dies for lack of a ventilator or a health care worker gets sick with Covid-19, critics will ask why he didn’t do more to prevent it. His strategy is to simply deny that he is in charge, and to place as much blame as he can on governors and states. Or at least to lay the groundwork for doing this if things go south.
When it comes to managing the economic damage his strategy is to advocate – irresponsibly – for an early end to the social distancing and a quick resumption of normal economic activity. My prediction is that he won’t actually push very hard for this, because if there is an early end to social distancing and it goes badly he would be on the hook for it. So he will be happy leaving this decision to governors. He is setting himself up to blame others if the economic slowdown continues and becomes a political liability.
There is no guarantee that his blame-avoidance strategies will work, but Trump is playing a bad hand skillfully.
An interesting question is whether Trump is pursuing this blame-avoidance strategy intentionally, or if it is just a happy (for him) side-effect of his managerial incompetence and his intense personal desire to avoid criticism. My guess is that it’s a bit of both. He is a talented and experienced grifter, with an intuitive understanding of how to play an audience. His impulsiveness and his thin skin may sometimes lead him to act in self-defeating ways, but he has a natural understanding of the politics of credit-claiming and blame-avoidance, and right now that ability is standing him (not the world) in good stead.