Donald Trump and Bill Clinton: Whose negligence was worse?

U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images).

We have to go back to President Bill Clinton to find another example of gross presidential irresponsibility that comes within 100 miles of the negligence displayed by President Trump about the coronavirus, both personally and as our national leader. This came into sharp focus this past week after he, the first lady, and a number of aides, GOP senators and allies tested positive for COVID-19.

That statement does require a major caveat. During the past four years, Trump has repeatedly committed egregious acts of malfeasance that dwarf anything committed by Bill Clinton or other presidents of either party in the modern era. But unlike those other offenses, as we witnessed this past week, Trump’s casual approach to safeguarding himself and others against the coronavirus has hampered his ability to perform his job and, depending on who else in his circle gets infected, others’ effectiveness as well.

Of course, some will note that a Donald Trump who can’t perform his job duties is less dangerous than a Donald Trump who can. Though a fair point, that’s irrelevant to this comparative assessment of the self-sabotage committed by Presidents Clinton and Trump.

IN CLINTON’S CASE, THE SEX scandal (involving 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinski) indirectly resulted in his impeachment and subsequent Senate acquittal in 1998. The fall-out crippled Clinton’s ability to advance his policy and political agendas.

At the time, I wrote a column for The Athens (Ohio) NEWS, for which I served as editor, flogging President Clinton for having so little regard for his responsibility to the American people. He threw away his political and policy advantages by engaging in a glancing fling with a young female intern (preying upon this powerless subordinate, an offense for which he would have gotten fired in any other job). When I wrote the column, I mainly was talking about hamstrung Clinton’s ability to negotiate with and gain advantage over Republicans who held a majority in both seats in Congress.

I couldn’t have known then that Clinton’s impeachment and the resulting “Clinton fatigue” would erode Democratic voter enthusiasm and create a drag on Vice President Al Gore’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign against George W. Bush in 2000.

At that point I couldn’t think of another political situation in modern American history with such a vast chasm between cost and benefit. In return for a moment of fleeting illicit pleasure, Clinton sacrificed an immense amount of political capital, with devastating consequences for his policy agenda and Democrats at the polls. The scandal changed history.

PRESIDENT TRUMP, HOWEVER, has provided an update on the incredibly lopsided cost-benefit ratio for which Bill Clinton is legend. And Trump doesn’t have Clinton’s schoolboy excuse that he didn’t think he’d get caught. To the contrary, the current president has flaunted his negligence, the high-water mark being his extremely reckless SUV ride outside of Walter Reed Hospital on Sunday afternoon.

Up to that point, Trump’s drive-by political stunt to wave at supporters represented just the most blatant example of him risking his own health, and that of people in his staff and circle — and anyone else he has encountered during the time when he’s been infected. On top of that, Trump’s careless response to the coronavirus seems likely to fritter away his already foundering bid for reelection, while dampening enthusiasm for down-ballot Republicans.

Those are among the serious and potentially historical costs of the president’s negligence. But what benefits did he gain? Well, I supposed it would be nice to throw away the mask and not constantly worry about getting too close to people. It would be sweet relief to go back to those halcyon days when one felt safe eating in a restaurant, watching live music, or shopping in a store. And perhaps that endorphin rush you get when you ridicule public health precautions in front of thousands of adoring, mask-less supporters really is worth the extravagant cost.

Well, no.

Clinton’s behavior, while unforgivable, exposed nobody else to his poor example. It’s not like legions of supporters went out and had stupid backroom sex with 22-year-old interns, based on Bill’s behavior.

Conversely, Trump’s role modeling on the coronavirus — downplaying the disease and the precautions necessary to slow it down from the very beginning, urging states to reopen their economies before they were ready — has had grave consequences for the country, with more than 211,000 confirmed dead from COVID-19 as of Monday. And now, this casual attitude — hey, dude, it’s just the mild flu hardly affecting anybody — has had a predictable result for Trump personally and many of those in his circle who followed his grossly irresponsible example.

The formula is beautiful in its simplicity. If you don’t take a highly contagious virus seriously, you’ll probably get sick. Viewing video of the Sept. 26 ceremony in the Rose Garden, introducing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, one marvels at the stupid arrogance of all these highly successful and well-to-do people gathered together with an unwelcome viral guest. Few wore masks as they sat side by side, shaking hands, hugging one another, talking, laughing, bantering in privileged bonhomie. An increasing number of people who attended that event have tested positive for COVID-19. Trump’s family and chief of staff exhibited similar irresponsibility at the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, ignoring CDC and Cleveland Clinic guidelines to wear masks.

Here in Athens, Ohio, and among my extended circle of friends elsewhere, I don’t know anybody who would behave that way (though mask denial is common in areas where Trump has heavier support). This is Pandemic 101 — indoors or outdoors you avoid getting into close proximity with other people outside of your safe circle of family and friends, and when that’s unavoidable, you wear a mask. Most of us completed that crash course early last spring.

While those precautions don’t necessarily grant protection from the coronavirus, practicing them does suggest you enjoy immunity from President Trump’s terrible example. God willing, after the news of the past few days, that immunity will expand to the president’s base of supporters. Judging from Vice President Mike Pence’s example — campaigning without a mask this week while he should be quarantining — I wouldn’t hold my breath on any lessons being learned (but definitely hold your breath and stand back when encountering any of these MAGA folks who still aren’t wearing a mask).