Donald Trump leaves office exactly how he entered it: catastrophically clueless about how his own government and country works.
You might think that after grappling with a historic pandemic for most of his final year in office, the hapless and hopeless occupant of the Oval Office would have picked up a little experience.
But no. Here we are, on the verge of rolling out a new vaccine, and the soon-to-be-ex-president can’t get his head around the job.
It’s almost as if this extraordinary triumph of global science has overwhelmed not just the novel coronavirus but a lifetime of play-acting by a small-time property developer with a big mouth.
Trump ran for office in the role of the successful businessman he played on The Apprentice. He ran for re-election in the role of the successful steward of the economy. Until now, the people playing political pundits on TV claimed that Trump had some magical powers of stagecraft that kept the crowds enthralled.
But aside from his incessant tweeting, there was no theatrical or business genius at work. Trump always relied on his TV producers – Mark Burnett for NBC or Roger Ailes for Fox News – to make his performance semi-coherent.
In his final days in the White House, the Trumpian trope of the business executive running a business-like White House has withered away. Just like all those election lawsuits filed by his elite strike force of part-time lawyers and full-time grifters.
Having thrown billions of dollars at his so-called Operation Warp Speed, you might think that our very own boardroom genius would guard every last drop of vaccine in a lockbox. If so, you’d be wrong once again.
For some reason, this Starship Enterprise chose not to purchase 100m of doses of the successful Pfizer vaccine, even though the company offered them by spring of next year. Traveling at something slower than warp speed, the United States will now have to wait until the summer for more doses of the only vaccine with an imminent FDA approval.
This would normally be treated as a political calamity that would mortify any elected official or policymaker. But long ago this president suffered a rare viral infection that chemically neutered any sense of public shame or personal responsibility.
So he staged a “vaccine summit” with his own supporters and staff on Tuesday at the White House, where he signed an executive order trying to stop all those vaccines from fleeing the country. Think of it like a vaccine wall stretching all along the southern border of Trump’s brain.
“My administration provided a total of $14bn to accelerate vaccine development and to manufacture all of the top candidates in advance – long in advance,” he said. “As a result of this unprecedented investment, we are exceedingly proud that both Pfizer and Moderna have announced that their vaccines are approximately 95% effective, which is a number that nobody expected to be able to get to, far exceeding anything that really we – that anybody thought.”
Never mind that Trump’s expectations of vaccine efficacy are clinically proven to be infinitesimally tiny. Never mind that Pfizer didn’t develop its vaccine with funds from Operation Warp Speed. Never mind that Pfizer and Moderna both declined to show up to the “vaccine summit”.
These are the last days of Trump and it’s hard to adjust our notions of normal after four years of Operation Mind Warp.
“But it has been incredible,” continued the commander – nay, the creator – of the space force. “And it will end the pandemic. It will end the pandemic. And we’re working with other nations. As you see actually by looking at your screen today, we’re working very closely with other nations also to get the vaccines out to other nations. And that’s very important. We work with the world. We’re working with the world. We have great companies, and we’re working with the world.”
Without skipping a beat, or firing a single synapse, Trump continued to explain the executive order he was about to sign to make sure that no vaccines would go to other nations. Screw the rest of the world.
“In just a few minutes, I’ll sign an executive order to ensure that the United States government prioritizes the getting out of the vaccine to American citizens before sending it to other nations.”
In real time it’s easy to miss these kinds of disturbances in the force. But there were some giveaways earlier on Tuesday that maybe all parts of the Trump ship were not traveling at the speed of light. Or even sound.
For starters, the chief science adviser for Operation Warp Speed told ABC News that he had no clue about the executive order. “Frankly I don’t know and frankly I’m staying out of this,” said Moncef Slaoui. “I can’t comment.”
“You don’t know?” asked a frankly incredulous George Stephanopoulos.
“I actually don’t know,” said the chief science adviser.
A little later came a statement not from anyone associated with healthcare or vaccines, but Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
“President Trump has no higher priority than defending our nation, and in taking this action, he is ensuring the health of our citizens, strengthening our economy, and enhancing our national security,” he wrote. “Today’s action was possible only with President Trump’s strong and decisive leadership.”
How true. There was the strong and decisive leadership that promised the pandemic would disappear like a miracle. There was the strong and decisive leadership that suggested the nation should inject itself with bleach, or shine a bright light on the virus.
And now there’s the strong and decisive leadership that spent $14bn on insufficient vaccines. It’s the same strong and decisive leadership that tried to cover up the colossal cockup with an executive order that screams America First while the rest of the world purchased first.
Say what you like about the captain on the bridge, but he is boldly going where no president has gone before.