Trump’s Epic Coronavirus Fail Follows Bush’s 9/11 Playbook

The nostalgia for George W. Bush inspired by his rousing coronavirus video message is misplaced.

By Steven Simon, professor in the practice of international relations at Colby College. He served on the NSC staff in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
President George W. Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq under a “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003.
President George W. Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq under a “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Hopeful, rousing, presidential—former U.S. President George W. Bush’s video message calling for national unity during the COVID-19 crisis struck all the right notes we have learned not to expect from Donald Trump. True to his vindictive form, Trump lost no time mocking Bush, whose message quickly went viral after it was released on May 2.

The exchange put the contrast between the two men’s characters in stark relief. On the one side, an unstable and irresponsible Trump, presiding over an administration that has more to do with Barnum & Bailey than Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman. On the other, Bush—not a poseur but a wartime president who staffed his administration with deeply experienced officials who took foreign policy seriously in a way that seems alien to the grifter commune that has coalesced around Trump.

Indeed, Bush was guided by a concept of national interest that wasn’t solely defined as his own personal political interest, even if the two are necessarily linked. Bush was capable of ethical thinking, most notably in the case of AIDS in Africa, which he directed his administration to help address. Nor was he a bigot or an open supporter of white supremacists in the way that Trump surely is. And even as he was waging war against countries whose populations were largely or almost exclusively Muslim, he urged Americans not to demonize Islam, and unhesitatingly shared the stage with Muslim clerics.

As president, Bush was considered stubborn, incurious, and inarticulate—but capable of learning from his mistakes, especially during his second term, when he worked to repair the damage he had done to the trans-Atlantic alliance during the first. He was rigid but not always. Trump, on the other hand, is flexible to the point of incoherence and incomprehensible on policy issues.

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However, the focus on the two men’s real character differences—along with nostalgia for U.S. leadership before Trump—obscures the similarity of the two administrations in the way they handled their defining crises, COVID-19 and 9/11.

These shared traits were on full display in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, the action surrounding the attacks, and the Bush administration’s response. They were equally vivid in the period leading up to the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak, and Trump’s murky plan for managing what promises to be a lengthy pandemic.

Trump’s handling of the current crisis uses the playbook that the Bush administration wrote nearly 20 years ago.

9/11 was preceded by five years of experts in and outside government warning about a new form of warfare inspired and justified by religion that would be waged not by states but by substate actors with the aim of causing mass casualties. A year and a half before the attacks, my colleague Daniel Benjamin and I sounded the alarm in the New York Times. We were not divulging any secrets: Jihadists had announced their intention in a crystal-clear declaration of war in 1996, had carried out a string of devastating attacks in the Middle East and Africa, and had made a previous attempt in 1993 to take down the World Trade Center in New York.

During the Bill Clinton administration, a small group of officials worked to prepare the country for an impending assault. It was an uphill climb because the threat seemed so improbable—and the enemy looked so small and weak compared with nation-states.

When the Bush administration took office, Clinton’s national security team, some of whom had remained in their jobs, tried to convince Bush and his new national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, to focus on the new enemy. As evidence of an imminent attack on the United States mounted, Bush and Rice showed increasing contempt for what they construed as a Clinton-era obsession, irrelevant to the traditional world of great-power competition. By the time they agreed to gather the National Security Council to discuss the threat, it was too late. The meeting took place on Sept. 4, 2001.

In the aftermath of the attack, the willful incompetence of his administration was compounded by the single-minded fixation on an old and familiar U.S. adversary, Iraq. Ignoring the contrary advice of intelligence experts, Bush and his team insisted that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks and prepared for invasion and regime change. Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism advisor who had warned Bush about al Qaeda, was quietly demoted and ultimately left the administration.

In a pattern that would be repeated almost to the letter by Trump, the Bush administration removed its own government experts on Iraq, cast aside a detailed planning process led by deeply informed career officials, and substituted political hacks with no relevant experience, whose only qualification was loyalty to Bush. Just as Trump declared the virus beaten before it truly began to spread, Bush announced “mission accomplished” as soon as Saddam fell. Within a year, profound U.S. mistakes triggered a civil war in Iraq that took many American and Iraqi lives and whose only beneficiary was Iran.

Fast forward to Trump and COVID-19.

For years, a small group of experts has been warning about pandemics. The Clinton administration established an international health security directorate on the National Security Council (NSC), led by an able U.S. Public Health Service rear admiral, Kenneth Bernard. The Barack Obama administration not only beefed up the NSC pandemic preparedness staff but also moved swiftly to clamp down on SARS, MERS, swine flu, West Nile virus, and Ebola by spearheading an international response together with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security. These outbreaks led experts to anticipate a pandemic that would be both highly transmissible and lethal. They were, in essence, warning of a viral 9/11. They also left Trump and his team a detailed playbook for handling a future pandemic.

But just as Bush dismissed warnings of impending terrorist attacks, Trump and his advisors came in with nothing but contempt for the preceding administration. They dismissed the warnings, sent the NSC’s pandemic preparedness staff to a bureaucratic dungeon, stripped the CDC of essential funding, and replaced government experts with hucksters, cranks, and bootlickers. The government response is led by the president’s son-in-law and within the Department of Health and Human Services by a former dog breeder. The few experts who haven’t been fired yet, such as Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are routinely derided by the president.

Like Bush, Trump ignored months of systematic intelligence collection regarding the impending threat. As early as November 2019, U.S. intelligence experts were already exchanging information about the coronavirus with their Israeli counterparts. As under Bush, the intelligence community fought to get heard by inserting repeated warnings into the daily presidential briefings. As under Bush, they were ignored because Trump had his own preconceptions and preoccupations. When Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar tried to draw Trump’s attention to the gathering storm, Trump responded by asking when Azar’s department would approve flavored vape.Just as Bush shifted the nation’s focus to Iraq, Trump seized the coronavirus to justify his obsession with China.

Like Bush, who couldn’t grasp the fact that al Qaeda was not the tool of an adversarial state, Trump refused to believe—or professed not to believe—that the virus was not an instrument of a hostile Chinese state, invented in a laboratory, and unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Just as Bush shifted the nation’s focus to Iraq, Trump seized the coronavirus to justify his obsession with China.

The pattern should be obvious by now. Bush, despite his welcome and genuine call for unity, is not the virtuous opposite of Trump. Rather, his administration’s disregard for a clearly identified threat, hostility to the experts who anticipated an attack, and inattention to crisis management was the template for Trump’s disastrous response to the crisis. While Trump’s character might differ from Bush’s, his approach to a momentous challenge to U.S. security looks very much the same.

Steven Simon is professor in the practice of international relations at Colby College. He served at the State Department and as National Security Council staff and is co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East. His new book, The Long Goodbye: The United States and the Middle East From the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring, is forthcoming.