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Former White House Officials: Trump Is Missing an Opportunity by Not Calling Obama, Bush, Clinton

Yesterday, President Donald Trump said he wanted the country “opened” by Easter. Today, former President Barack Obama tweeted a New Yorker story with the headline “‘Shit’s Really Going to Hit the Fan’: Inside New York’s Overburdened Hospitals” and pleaded with Americans to stay home. At a moment when most presidents would call upon members of the so-called Presidents Club, the men who once held the job and who know what it’s like to face catastrophes, the chasm between Trump and his predecessors has grown even wider. It is one casualty of this norm-defying presidency coming into stark view during this crisis.

When Trump was asked during Sunday’s White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference whether he would reach out to his predecessors for help, he basically said, Thanks, but no thanks. “I don’t think I’m going to learn much. And, you know, I guess you could say that there’s probably a natural inclination not to call.” It is obvious why he would not feel comfortable calling up these men and asking for their help. He has called Jimmy Carter “a nice man” but “a terrible president” who has been “trashed by his own party”; he has accused Obama of wiretapping his offices during the campaign; he has called George W. Bush’s order to invade Iraq “the single worst decision ever made”; the vitriol he has directed at the Clintons is legendary. Trump has burned every conceivable bridge.
Today there are dueling Americas operating on parallel tracks, causing confusion during a crisis that has already upended so many lives. There is the America of the past, which seems quaint now, when presidents would rely on their predecessors to help quell the rattled nerves of the country during a major crisis. This was the America of George W. Bush, who sent his father on a global mission with the political opponent who had made Bush Sr. a one-term president. In 2005, after the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton traveled the world on a humanitarian trip. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and killed nearly 2,000 people later that year, Bush asked his father and Clinton to team up again. The odd couple, separated by decades, backgrounds, and ideologies became friends and were called “the A-team” in the press. When Bush died in 2018 Clinton called his friendship “one of the great gifts of my life.” After the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, then president Obama, having seen the power of such a bipartisan alliance, dispatched George W. Bush and Clinton to raise awareness and funds.

No one expects to see Trump and Obama traveling the world arm in arm when Trump is no longer president, but right now would be an opportunity for the former presidents to come together, as they have in the past, and share their experiences dealing with health crises. Bush could tell Trump about how he dealt with SARS during his presidency and Obama could share details about H1N1 swine flu (of course he would have to look past Trump’s recent withering criticism of how he managed it). But instead of supporting each other and offering clear guidelines, Obama is communicating one message—to “stay home”—directly to millions of people using social media—while Trump is using the bully pulpit to say that business should get back to normal sooner rather than later. It is whiplash-inducing, and it is a sad side effect of the Trump presidency.

Trump has not spoken with Bill Clinton since his inauguration, and aside from saying “hello” and “goodbye” at George H.W. Bush’s funeral, he has not spoken with Obama either. He’s had only slightly more communication with his most recent Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. One former top Trump aide said that it would be a welcome sign if Trump would pick up the phone and call his predecessors, who would surely help, and convey a unifying message. “It would be reassuring to the American public to show that there’s a limit to how far you can politicize all relationships and policies,” the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “This requires us to go beyond politics.” A former top Obama aide, who also requested anonymity, said it’s unlikely for the former presidents to band together to do something without Trump’s invitation. “It would be so sensationalized by the media.” Trump has essentially tied their hands, because if they did band together, the story would become all about the former presidents versus Trump. They are trapped.

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