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Trump’s COVID-19 response is a national defense failure

If the coronavirus were a foreign military, we would be outraged. We should be no less outraged now.

A COVID-19 isolation room at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Oct. 28.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Even in a polarized political climate, one area where most Americans would likely agree is that a fundamental aspect of the job of the US president is ensuring the safety and security of the American people. Recent occupants of the Oval Office concur. In 2004, President George W. Bush stated, “I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people.” His successor, Barack Obama, echoed similar sentiments: “As commander-in-chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people.”

With more than 229,000 Americans confirmed dead from COVID-19, President Trump has failed to protect the citizens of this country. And as we head into winter, America is experiencing another spike in COVID-19 infections, setting record numbers, and the administration seems no more prepared to face this rising threat than it was when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States nine months ago.


It’s not for lack of resources. America spends roughly $700 billion annually on defense. While we often think of defense in terms of traditional capabilities like aircraft carriers, strike fighters, and military personnel, at its most basic level its purpose is the safety and security of the American people. For $700 billion a year, we should expect any administration to be able to analyze the most dangerous and most likely threats to the United States and make robust preparations to keep us safe. Trump’s White House has not done this.

Those in the White House should have seen the US vulnerability to the coronavirus pandemic, listened to expert advisers, and acted accordingly — by stockpiling and distributing personal protective equipment, invigorating supply chains, and spreading citizen awareness.

The emergence of a pandemic was predicted. In 2017, the Pentagon warned of a pandemic caused by a novel respiratory disease and alerted Trump that they needed more resources to confront the threat. In January 2019, Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, concluded that the United States remained vulnerable to a deadly pandemic. Earlier this year, Trump’s top advisers warned repeatedly that the coronavirus was coming. Trump ignored these warnings, and he dissolved the very office in the National Security Council created to address the type of threat presented by COVID-19.


Trump doesn’t get to pass the buck on this — plans that the Pentagon did make were wasted through the president’s failure to anticipate the virus and rally the nation. As a consequence, the “enemy” has succeeded in weakening the US economy, shutting down schools, disrupting daily life, and killing a quarter-million Americans. If the enemy here were a foreign military, we would be outraged. We should be no less outraged now.

Trump’s coronavirus failure raises the question: What else are we unprepared for?

For years, experts have warned about the risk of unconventional attacks — such as cyberattacks, the use of radiological weapons, disruption to our communications infrastructure, our power grids, and our food and water supply lines. The federal response to COVID-19 does not inspire confidence in the government’s ability to plan for these scenarios. In fact, the coronavirus has laid bare just how vulnerable we are to a bioterrorist attack. Trump didn’t listen to the Pentagon on the coronavirus — what other new and emerging threats is he ignoring?


Consider how other nations are handling the pandemic. China, our biggest rival, has seen only a fraction of our pandemic deaths (about 5,000) for one-sixth of the price — in part because of smart strategies like contact tracing, decisive lockdowns, and focused leadership. China clearly has vastly different systems of governance than the United States, but its ability to mobilize resources and pursue a national strategy means the Chinese will continue to pull ahead of us in critical areas such as shipbuilding, cruise and ballistic missiles, integrated air defense and eventually, Artificial Intelligence, unless we get smarter soon.

Our enemies (and allies) are watching our response, which has significant implications for our future security and leadership role in the world. Our weaknesses are on full display, which our enemies will almost certainly attempt to exploit. The president’s negligence resulted in the White House — our nation’s command and control center — being penetrated by this threat. How can he defend the nation if he can’t protect his own house?

Americans deserve an administration that will take a comprehensive view of defense. That starts by reestablishing the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health and Security and Biodefense. The administration must also take a critical look at new, emerging, and nonlinear threats — cyberwarfare, bioterrorism, and climate refugee displacement, among others — and make robust plans to allocate resources accordingly.


As the death toll continues to mount, America needs a president who takes national defense as a serious and solemn responsibility. America needs a president who will protect its citizens.

Maura C. Sullivan served as an assistant secretary at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and special assistant to the secretary of the Navy during the Obama administration. A resident of Portsmouth, N.H., she is an Iraq War veteran and a former Marine Corps officer.