Last week, for the nineteenth time, we remembered the 2,977 people lost on September 11, 2001 in attacks on New York and Washington, and the intentionally-downed plane by heroic passengers in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I was in New York on that day. I saw the first plane hit and the Towers fall with my own eyes from my Brooklyn window. It was a pivotal, tragic day worthy of the now-ubiquitous slogan, “9/11: Never Forget.”
But for obvious reasons this anniversary is different. One can’t help but to reflect on the differences and similarities of 9/11 and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Out of respect for those grieving the loss of loved ones on 9/11, most people kept these comparisons to themselves last Friday. But keeping quiet is a mistake. After all, learning from mistakes is one of the best ways to honor the dead. The deaths of 200,000 Americans cannot be in vain.
If we are to learn, we need to understand. It has been fashionable to compare the COVID-19 pandemic to the last major pandemic, the 1918 influenza pandemic. President Woodrow Wilson’s failures, which occurred on the heels of World War I, are well-documented. But it is 9/11 that is the more fruitful comparison for understanding modern questions of presidential leadership that COVID-19 raises.
There are some obvious differences between 9/11 and COVID-19. The former is seared into our minds because of the sheer and sudden shock of the event itself. Large airplanes flying into buildings, people jumping out of windows in desperation, and the weeks of fruitless hope in New York that maybe, just maybe, somebody’s loved one might be found alive.
COVID-19, on the other hand, has unfolded over months. Such disasters lack the shock of a sudden event like 9/11 and therefore raise a different set of political questions. Most Americans started hearing about a thing called a “Novel Coronavirus” back in February, but President Donald Trump assured us that all would be well. On Feb. 26, in fact, he claimed that “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
President Trump had infinitely more advance notice about COVID-19 than Bush had about 9/11. Trump did not only refuse take basic steps to protect Americans against the known and growing threat; he mocked the very public health measures that would have allowed individuals to protect themselves, their families, friends, and colleagues. Trump took a merely bad response to the level of the flagrant by holding super-spreader political rallies with little social distancing and few masks.
By the time March rolled around, we had been led over some weeks to a point of acceptance that life in the U.S. was changing for the near future, if not forever. It was similar in many ways to the post-9/11 mantra that the world changed forever that day. We had entered a “post-9/11 world” just as we are now hoping to be able to get to a point at which we can envision a “post-COVID-19 world.” On the first anniversary of COVID-19’s eruption in the U.S., however, we will likely remain in the midst of a public health crisis, with preventable deaths continuing to mount.
The 9/11 Commission found multiple levels of failure in the nation’s readiness and response to 9/11. We will recall the title of the infamous presidential daily briefing (PDB) titled, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,” and which specifically noted that that intelligence agencies had detected “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for a hijacking.” In her testimony before the 9/11 Commission in April 2004, when asked about that PDB, then-national security advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice grasped, but ultimately failed to explain why the Bush administration did not take the PDB’s warnings seriously. President Bush’s key staff failed to underscore the importance of the threat when the president didn’t see it himself.
But character also matters. A willingness to read briefings and take their contents seriously is a critical part of a president’s fitness for the job. We know that if Trump had read his presidential daily briefings — at all, but preferably with care — he would have known what was coming with COVID-19. His PDBs, after all, contained numerous warnings in January and February to the effect that COVID-19 was a serious threat. Yet, Business Insider reported back in May that Trump doesn’t regularly read his PDBs, but only looks at the charts, graphs, and tables.
As the Washington Post reported back in April, “the alarms appear to have failed to register with the president, who routinely skips reading the PDB and has at times shown little patience for even the oral summary he takes two or three times per week, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified material.” Compounding this problem is that Trump has clearly fostered a White House dynamic where nobody is willing to speak bluntly to their boss, to underscore the stakes of threats presented by intelligence.
But with Trump — and here is a key difference with Bush — the problem cuts even deeper, as the president’s dereliction transcends a simple failure to read PDBs. Because of reporter Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” we now know that the president was actually well aware of the danger that COVID-19 posed to the U.S. as early as Feb. 7. He was both ill-informed and failed to act on the threats he was aware of.
To be clear, I do not draw out these comparisons to downplay 9/11. The point, rather, is to understand their significance for how we think about leadership, both in terms of preparing for threats and in responding to situations when threats become realities. It’s also important to keep the sheer loss of life in view. It takes a little over two hours to read the names of those who died on 9/11. It would take more than 140 hours to read all of the names of those who have already died from COVID-19. And more people are dying every day.
Both 9/11 and COVID-19 should serve as examples of presidential failure. But the extended duration over which Trump’s failure took place, the scale of the disaster it wrought, and the reckless disregard for the lives of Americans that President Trump has displayed makes COVID-19 a far more insidious lesson for those who value competent and principled American leadership.