Was Donald Trump Distracted from the Coronavirus Threat by Impeachment?

Impeachment can’t take sole blame for the government’s early missteps in addressing the pandemic, but it undeniably played a part in them.

Mitch McConnell told Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that in the early days of the global coronavirus pandemic, the government was distracted by impeachment:

Hewitt: In your experience in the Senate, was Senator Cotton the first one to say hey, Leader, hey Mitch, this is a deadly situation that I do not trust to the Chinese? Was he first?

McConnell: He was first, and I think Tom was right on the mark. And it came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment. But Tom figured this out early, and he was absolutely right.

Headlines to the contrary notwithstanding, in context McConnell was clearly aiming to give credit to Tom Cotton rather than to make excuses. But was he right?

The Center Ring

At the simplest level, if you just ask, “Were President Trump and his senior aides distracted by impeachment?” the answer is, “Of course they were.” But how much that matters requires us to reconstruct the context of two months ago, which now seems like the distant past.

The House impeached Trump on December 18. The Senate trial began January 16, was effectively wrapped up with the vote to hear no live witnesses on Friday, January 31, and concluded with the vote of acquittal on February 5, the day after Trump’s State of the Union address. Impeachment was an all-consuming drama for this White House, the Congress, and the Washington press corps. It swamped coverage of the Democratic presidential race just as the Iowa caucuses kicked the voting off. Nearly everyone scoffing at McConnell today was spending vastly more of their energy on impeachment at the time than they were on the virus news out of China. The possibility that impeachment would distract the government from more important things was part of the debate at the time over whether to go through with it. For those of us who questioned the wisdom of forcing a House vote and Senate trial when the outcome was predetermined, the waste of time and attention was part of the case against impeachment; for those who saw the process as a way to inflict political damage on an administration they regard as deeply dangerous, keeping the president occupied was a bonus.

There was a good deal of debate at the time about who was and was not distracted from what by impeachment. On January 6, Elizabeth Warren claimed that Trump’s authorization of a military strike on Qassem Soleimani was driven by his being “upset” at impeachment and was intended to distract the public from it. On January 18, CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that:

Donald Trump has appeared “distracted” by the impeachment trial that begins on Tuesday, according to a source close to the White House who speaks to the President regularly. “Why are they doing this to me,” the source quoted Trump as saying repeatedly, telling people around him this weekend at Mar-a-Lago that he “can’t understand why he is impeached.”

Trump’s administration, however, was not paralyzed, even with the president preoccupied. On January 23, David Graham of The Atlantic argued that “even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.”

To the extent that impeachment was consuming the finite attention of senior policymakers in the White House and on Capitol Hill, we can only be thankful that Senate Republicans wrapped up the trial by voting down additional witnesses on January 31. Had the Democrats gotten their wish, Washington would have been consumed for additional critical weeks into February looking backward at Ukraine instead of forward at the threat of the virus.

Attention to the Virus
The American response to the coronavirus was, in retrospect, too slow and too complacent. There is plenty of blame to go around. As Jim Geraghty has detailed, any accounting begins with China, which misled the international community about the nature and scope of the original epidemic in Wuhan. The World Health Organization was at best gullible in relying on Chinese assurances to insist, into mid-January, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.” And, yes, our own leaders dropped the ball, too.


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