President Trump in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on April 3. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Until now, I have generally been reluctant to label Donald Trump the worst president in U.S. history. As a historian, I know how important it is to allow the passage of time to gain a sense of perspective. Some presidents who seemed awful to contemporaries (Harry S. Truman) or simply lackluster (Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush) look much better in retrospect. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, don’t look as good as they once did.
So I have written, as I did on March 12, that Trump is the worst president in modern times — not of all time. That left open the possibility that James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding or some other nonentity would be judged more harshly. But in the past month, we have seen enough to take away the qualifier “in modern times.” With his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus, Trump has established himself as the worst president in U.S. history.
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His one major competitor for that dubious distinction remains Buchanan, whose dithering helped lead us into the Civil War — the deadliest conflict in U.S. history. Buchanan may still be the biggest loser. But there is good reason to think that the Civil War would have broken out no matter what. By contrast, there is nothing inevitable about the scale of the disaster we now confront.
The situation is so dire, it is hard to wrap your mind around it. The Atlantic notes: “During the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the economy suffered a net loss of approximately 9 million jobs. The pandemic recession has seen nearly 10 million unemployment claims in just two weeks.” The New York Times estimates that the unemployment rate is now about 13 percent, the highest since the Great Depression ended 80 years ago.
Far worse is the human carnage. We already have more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other country. Trump claimed on Feb. 26 that the outbreak would soon be “down to close to zero.” Now he argues that if the death toll is 100,000 to 200,000 — higher than the U.S. fatalities in all of our wars combined since 1945 — it will be proof that he’s done “a very good job.”
No, it will be a sign that he’s a miserable failure, because the coronavirus is the most foreseeable catastrophe in U.S. history. The warnings about the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks were obvious only in retrospect. This time, it didn’t require any top-secret intelligence to see what was coming. The alarm was sounded in January by experts in the media and by leading Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Government officials were delivering similar warnings directly to Trump. A team of Post reporters wrote on Saturday: “The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus —the first of many—in the President’s Daily Brief.” But Trump wasn’t listening.
The Post article is the most thorough dissection of Trump’s failure to prepare for the gathering storm. Trump was first briefed on the coronavirus by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 18. But, The Post writes, “Azar told several associates that the president believed he was ‘alarmist’ and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue.” When Trump was first asked publicly about the virus, on Jan. 22, he said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”
In the days and weeks after Azar alerted him about the virus, Trump spoke at eight rallies and golfed six times as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Trump’s failure to focus, The Post notes, “sowed significant public confusion and contradicted the urgent messages of public health experts.” It also allowed bureaucratic snafus to go unaddressed — including critical failures to roll out enough tests or to stockpile enough protective equipment and ventilators.
Countries as diverse as Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, South Korea, Georgia and Germany have done far better — and will suffer far less. South Korea and the United States discovered their first cases on the same day. South Korea now has 183 dead — or 4 deaths per 1 million people. The U.S. death ratio (25 per 1 million) is six times worse — and rising quickly.
This fiasco is so monumental that it makes our recent failed presidents — George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — Mount Rushmore material by comparison. Trump’s Friday night announcement that he’s firing the intelligence community inspector general who exposed his attempted extortion of Ukraine shows that he combines the ineptitude of a George W. Bush or a Carter with the corruption of Richard Nixon.
Trump is characteristically working hardest at blaming others — China, the media, governors, President Barack Obama, the Democratic impeachment managers, everyone but his golf caddie — for his blunders. His mantra is: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” It remains to be seen whether voters will buy his excuses. But whatever happens in November, Trump cannot escape the pitiless judgment of history.
Somewhere, a relieved James Buchanan must be smiling.