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An Appeal to the Vice President

The government’s coronavirus response needs a steadier hand on the tiller.
March 12, 2020
Featured Image
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 02: (L-R) U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a meeting with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and pharmaceutical executives in Cabinet Room of the White House on March 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump and his Coronavirus Task Force team met with pharmaceutical companies representatives who are actively working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s perfectly, indeed painfully, clear, as Priscilla Jensen points out in The Bulwark this morning, that Donald Trump is “the exact wrong man for the moment.” Even some of President Trump’s normally reliable defenders are having difficulty denying his utter irresponsibility and manifest incompetence in handling the crisis we now face. But what is to be done?

It’s true that we can expect Donald Trump to pay an electoral price in November. But Trump’s irresponsibility and incompetence in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic are real problems with real effects in real time. What can be done, not in November, but right now?

Unlike parliamentary forms of government, our system is not really set up to deal with the challenge of a president like Donald Trump unable to deal with a genuine crisis. Yes, Congress can and should mandate certain actions. Yes, cabinet officers can and should do their best despite the president they ostensibly serve. But it’s clear that the president’s own character, which dictates his manner of governing and therefore to some degree the response of his entire administration, stands in the way of sound policy in this time of crisis.

So what can be done? Well, here’s one suggestion. It’s admittedly far-fetched, to say the least. But sometimes the far-fetched is necessary and reasonable.

I am, to say the least, no great fan of Mike Pence. His appearance this morning on TV is the latest reminder of his appalling three years as a sycophantic Trump apologist. But despite that—and it’s not easy even to write this!—no one watching over the last week can doubt that Vice President Pence, whatever his limitations and whatever condemnation he deserves, would be a more serious, more responsible, and more reassuring person in dealing with this crisis than President Trump. It would be far better for the nation if Pence were not simply the head of the coronavirus crisis task force reporting to the president, but in charge of the government response writ large.

So Vice President Pence should go privately to President Trump with this message:

“Mr. President, your inability to deal with this crisis is endangering our general welfare. You need to publicly recuse yourself from the management of this crisis. You need to stop commenting on the situation. You need to step aside from all decision-making. You can focus on other aspects of the presidency. But you need to let me direct the response to the crisis, along with the cabinet officers and public health professionals in the government. You need to give me authority to order personnel and policy changes. You will not need to admit past error. But you will have to stand by while I do so. And you will have to accept that experts who are critics of yours will be brought into the administration, some on a permanent basis, some on a temporary basis, to help steer the nation through this. You will remain our president, Mr. President. But on all matters relating to the pandemic, until the crisis has passed, you will be president in name only.”

President Trump will probably refuse to accept this proposed (and admittedly unprecedented) self-recusal from one set of his presidential powers. If he does refuse, the vice president should say that he nonetheless intends to proceed in this manner until he is relieved by the president of his role as manager of the federal government’s task force. And the vice president should add that he will of course have to explain to the public why he has been relieved of this role. This might in turn effectuate enough of a cabinet and congressional revolt to bring about the same kind of changes in government actions and policies, if not under Pence’s direction.

Yes, the vice president is unlikely to do this. But why not? What’s the worst that can happen? That Pence will have to spend the rest of the Trump presidency at home in the Naval Observatory? That Trump will dump him from a losing presidential ticket? Rather than go down silently and ignominiously with the Trump ship, Pence might as well be recorded in history as trying to rectify the situation. If he needs his nerve stiffened, he should have his staff get for him from the fine library in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Better, surely, to follow in the footsteps of Lieutenant Stephen Maryk than to go along passively with Captain Queeg.

Again, I know this seems far-fetched. But we’re in a national crisis, and in crises considering far-fetched ideas may help us better to understand the challenges we face and open our thinking to a broader range of solutions. We’re already taking unprecedented measures—schools and churches closing their doors, businesses sending their workers home, public events being canceled, millions of lives disrupted. In that context, this proposal is not perhaps so beyond the pale. At the least, it could stimulate more creative thinking towards the same end—competent and reassuring governance in this time of crisis.

What I’ve suggested is very unlikely to happen. But who, looking seriously at the urgency of the challenge and President Trump’s behavior so far, can say it shouldn’t happen?

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.