- President Donald Trump has never been known for his oratory skills, but his inability to process information and communicate clearly is now having dire consequences.
- In a prepared speech Wednesday night, Trump misstated several crucial facts, infuriated allies, and caused chaos for Americans both home and abroad.
- That’s why for everyone but the hardest-core of partisans, the US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic feels like chaos, not competence.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
President Donald Trump has never been known as an eloquent man. But his inability to effectively synthesise information and communicate coherently is now having dire consequences on the health and economy of the US.
In an address to the nation Wednesday, Trump appeared to do something rare for him: read off the teleprompter without adding flourishes or ad-libs.
And he still couldn’t get the facts right.
The big reveal of Trump’s address was a ban on “all travel from Europe,” with the exception of the UK and “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings.” But that’s not actually true. The ban applies only to the 26 European Union member nations in the Schengen Area – which don’t conduct checks at their contiguous borders. That means European countries outside the Schengen Area, including EU members such as Ireland and Croatia, are also exempt, something Trump did not make clear.
That’s not an insignificant detail. And it’s not just a lack of clarity; it’s a fully inaccurate statement.
Those mistakes can lead to chaos. For instance, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday night, travellers waiting to board a plane to Dublin weren’t sure they’d be able to come back. The CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan tweeted a video of an airline employee trying his level-best to reassure the spooked passengers that “if the leader of the free world is telling you that, you know, your travel is being affected, I would think that we have to give you your money back.”
Those Dublin-bound travellers were surely relieved when the White House later corrected Trump’s misstatement, but the implicit message is clear: The leader of the free world is causing chaos through his miscommunications.
An inexcusable bevy of misstatements
The Schengen mishap didn’t represent the only crucial bit of information Trump flubbed in what will certainly go down as a historic address to the nation.
He said Americans “who have undergone appropriate screenings” would be exempt from the travel ban. That statement left out the pertinent caveat that the screenings would happen in the US, not abroad. And permanent-resident noncitizens and their immediate family members would also be exempt.
He also said the ban would apply to goods and cargo, which would represent a massive economic disruption since the European Union is the US’s largest trading partner. But this sudden proclamation was immediately walked back. As Insider’s Grace Panetta noted, Trump himself later tweeted: “Trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people, not goods.”
Trump also claimed to have “met with the leaders of health insurance industry” and said they had agreed “to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments.” Also not true. They agreed to waive copayments for testing but not for treatments.
Trump in his address also claimed he was “in frequent contact with our allies,” which was swiftly disputed by stunned European Union leaders, who denounced the ban and said it had blindsided them.
In classic Trump fashion, on Thursday he dismissed US allies’ consternation not with diplomatic rejoinders but with trade-war rhetoric – one of the only forms of communication he appears to understand: “I mean, when they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us, and I think that’s probably one in the same.”
He added, “It takes a long time to make the individual calls.”
These are absurd excuses, especially coming from a world leader who reportedly makes time to chat with various right-wing media personalities before he tucks himself in at night.
A leader needs to effectively communicate in a global crisis
Presidents don’t need to be accomplished orators to effectively lead during crises. But they need to demonstrate that they understand the gravity of the situation.
When Trump stunned the nation – and the world – with his ban, he did it with incorrect information.
He caused chaos at airports and terrified Americans who didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the media to fact-check “the leader of the free world” before they had to take action.
When he claimed to have consulted with European allies, he was flat-out lying, and then he made a petty excuse to try to cover his tracks.
According to The New York Times, the speech was cobbled together at the last minute at the urging of the president’s daughter Ivanka, her husband, Jared Kushner, and the recently returned White House adviser Hope Hicks. Kushner reportedly oversaw the speechwriter Stephen Miller’s drafts, but “only two hours before the camera was to go on, it was still not entirely clear what Mr. Trump was going to say,” The Times reports.
This all reads like the same old Trump: inarticulate, arrogant, reckless. And that’s why for everyone but the hardest-core of partisans, the US response to the coronavirus pandemic feels like chaos, not competence.