Rep. Pascrell: With COVID-19, we need a wartime president, not an incompetent TV personality

Posted Mar 25, 2020

By Bill Pascrell

President Trump’s press conferences are themselves spreading a pathogen – that of deliberate misinformation about the virus and the administration’s actions to stem it. It is obvious that these spectacles are designed as replacements for Trump’s rallies so he can bathe in fawning adulation, Rep. Bill Pascrell says.


America today is at war but Americans do not have a wartime president. Our federal government is being led at the top not by a president but instead a man attempting to play a president on television.

Donald Trump’s tirade last week at a reporter and his continuing daily unfulfilled promises of strong action, miracle treatments, and rosy economic pronouncements are an affront to the public under siege. Trump’s press conferences are themselves spreading a pathogen – that of deliberate misinformation about the virus and the administration’s actions to stem it.

It is obvious that these spectacles are not designed to keep an anxious country informed but are merely replacements for Trump’s rallies so that he can bathe in fawning adulation and project the image of leadership without having to exercise any. Media members should stop attending these exhibitions and the networks should completely shut off their cameras so long as Trump uses them for nothing more than to spread his propaganda and lies.

Playing a president for television, trying to be a sulfurous version of Jed Bartlett is no substitute for the real thing: a leader in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt eager and able to take decisive actions.

Trump has been just the opposite: blaming everyone else for his administration’s lack of preparation and up to this minute refusing to take necessary measures. Trump’s obstinate refusal to take full advantage of the Defense Production Act is one of the most egregious omissions of his government right now.

Passed soon after World War II ended, the Defense Production Act exists for emergencies like the one we now face and gives the chief executive broad authority to compel American businesses and manufacturers to begin making supplies or items necessary for the national war effort.

Right now, New Jersey’s hospitals lack an adequate and continuous supply of vital personal protective equipment to deal with COVID-19 patients: masks, gowns, ventilators, even cotton swabs. The consequences of this shortage are staggering. In the coming two to three weeks, hospitals across the country will be flooded with deeply sick patients. A full shortage of medical equipment will expose our medical professionals to serious illness and make it impossible to provide adequate care. Tragically, people will die as a result.

As we are seeing in Italy, people are perishing from a lack of ventilators to allow patients to breathe. Having equipment matters immensely.

We must fill this void. And we have at our fingertips the might of a rich industrial nation that at the snap of the finger and the movement of a presidential pen could awaken with the work of filling orders for every needed mask, gown, swab, and ventilator.

While such a course may seem radical, it is not only absolutely necessary but one well-rooted in our own history.

During the Second World War, our nation was fortunate to be led by FDR, who intuitively grasped the size and scope of the challenge and brought to bear every tool at America’s ample disposal to win. His government enlisted any business it could to contribute and build everything from B-29s to tires and rations for our GIs in Europe and the Pacific. Those owners who valued their own bottom line more than the war effort and didn’t cooperate were padlocked out of their own factories. The only thing that mattered was the war, was winning.

Why hasn’t Trump acted to fully activate America’s raw power against COVID-19? He has openly said he is listening to his donors, the corporate executives whose companies would be impacted by changing their business model in this crisis. He is also dangerously downplaying the warnings from public health officials including from my friend Dr. Anthony Fauci. More broadly, the refusal to marshal our government to lead in this way is also a direct result of decades of a deliberate policy by many of my conservative colleagues to gut the federal government of its will and sideline experts.

Perhaps most obvious, Trump is grossly incompetent and does not understand the scope of this emergency; his rants about his approval ratings and stocks and bonds while Americans die demonstrate this. He is right now not a president but a man playing a role for television. He played this role for The Apprentice, but now the stakes are life and death.

Time is wasting. A leader would use the powers of the presidency and begin to build a new Arsenal of Democracy to ensure America can win our current fight with tools we already have at our disposal. Activate the Defense Production Act, Mr. Trump. This change would not happen overnight, but every single day counts for those fighting this virus and we need to get moving.

We need our own FDR, not someone doing a bad imitation of him for a TV audience.


Congressman Bill Pascrell represents New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District.

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