There have now been several pieces written that describe the US’s failing and flailing response to the SARS-CoV2 outbreak and COVID-19 epidemic as a failure of intelligence. The simple reality is that these analyses are wrong. They are not a failure of intelligence. As a former senior advisor to a number of senior leaders, I can honestly say that you can present senior leaders and decision-makers with the timely, accurate information they need to know, but no one can make them think. No one can make them accept it, process it, and act on it accordingly. And I was fortunate in that the senior leaders and decision-makers I served wanted timely, accurate information, were willing to consider it, and used it to inform their decision making. This is unfortunately not the case with the President. And this is clearly not a failure of intelligence, because we have excellent reporting indicating that timely, accurate information about SARS-CoV2 was presented to the President beginning in January 2020.
What we actually have is a failure of leadership. The President’s, the sycophants he’s surrounded himself with, members of the Republican caucuses in the House and the Senate, among Republican governors who are afraid of mean tweets and the President’s base, and among the publishers, editors, and executives at conservative news media outlets – from Fox News to talk radio to conservative digital news. The leak of the letter sent yesterday by Captain Crozier, the commander of The Theodore Roosevelt to his chain of command is just further evidence of what we’ve been observing since January in regard to the SARS-CoV2 outbreak and since January 2017 with this administration in general. With the exceptions of Director Wray at the FBI and Director Haspel at the CIA, there is not a single cabinet secretary or equivalent senior political appointee in this administration that would have even been nominated for, let alone confirmed to, their positions in any other administration with the possible exceptions of Secretary Chao and Attorney General Barr because of their previous senior cabinet appointee experience in previous administrations. You would not see any of these people in these positions in any other Republican administration. The few actually competent and qualified senior appointees, all of whom were generals (Mattis, Kelly, McMaster) with the exception of DNI Coats, are long gone. And the qualified subordinates they hired are long gone as well. What we’re left with is an incurious president who thinks he knows the price of everything, but really knows the value of nothing, as well as the price of nothing too and a bunch of senior appointees who would either never be considered for political appointments in any other administration or, at best, would be considered for deputy assistant positions at best. They, like their subordinates, have been selected for and/or retained because of professed and displayed loyalty to the President. These subordinates wouldn’t even be considered for the most junior positions in any other administration.
As an example, I honestly cannot think of a single good reason why the Acting Secretary of the Navy needed to do his media appearances today from NY City with the USNS Comfort as the backdrop except that someone explained to him that he was doing them for an audience of one, the President. And that audience wanted to see the USNS Comfort. It is this performative sycophancy that we are seeing revealed each and every day.
The United States is not just suffering through the SARS-CoV2 virus and COVID-19 epidemic. At the national level it is suffering from not just a lack of good leadership, but actual bad, self serving, and ultimately destructive leadership beginning with the President and throughout his administration. We are suffering from it in Senator Majority Leader McConnell and House Minority Leader McCarthy and their caucuses in each chamber of Congress. And we are suffering from it at the state level in a number of states with Republican governors, like FL, AZ, SC, GA, MS, and AL, who have decided that they would rather suck up to the President and demonstrate their fealty to him and his base of supporters rather than even attempt to aspire towards competency.