Opinion: Trump has shown he can’t keep Americans safe. In a second term, that could be disastrous.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Freeland, Mich., Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By Chris Edelson

May 7, 2024

As the 2024 campaign gears up, it’s worth emphasizing that being President of the United States is an extremely serious, uniquely high stakes job that requires someone with knowledge of and attention to the most pressing questions of national security.

A well-known campaign ad from 2008 made this clear, asking voters to consider the following scenario: “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep, but there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Who do you want answering the phone?”

The “3 a.m.” ad asked voters to think about which candidate would be best equipped to deal with “a terrible international incident.” In a typical election, this question might be especially difficult for a candidate challenging an incumbent president to answer if the untested challenger has never had the chance to manage crisis response from the Oval Office.

This year, we are faced with an unusual scenario where Donald Trump, the candidate challenging incumbent President Joe Biden, has already been president. That might seem like a benefit for Trump, in that he could cite his experience in office as a way to answer voters’ concerns about his ability to respond to national security crises.

The problem for Trump—and for voters—is that everything we know about Trump’s past record and his future plans if he is elected again make clear that he is completely unsuited to hold a position of public trust, handle national emergencies, and keep Americans safe.

Trump’s failed COVID-19 response


When he was president, Trump dealt with an especially urgent crisis—the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. No president—no single person—could have been fully prepared to deal with something like this, much less to make it go away.

What the United States needed was a competent, serious, informed president who understood what questions to ask, tried to tamp down the fear we all felt, and organized a national response aimed at saving as many lives as possible.

Trump failed on every count.

He irresponsibly predicted that the virus would “miraculously” disappear as the weather got warmer (of course, it didn’t). He dangerously suggested that people could protect themselves against Covid by injecting disinfectant into their bodies. A number of states subsequently reported increases in calls to poison control lines and a disinfectant maker had to warn people not to follow Trump’s advice.

Overall, Trump’s “denial, mismanagement, and magical thinking” had grave consequences for Americans. Researchers concluded that “the United States could have avoided 400,000 COVID deaths if the Trump administration had implemented a more effective health strategy that included mask mandates, social distancing, and robust testing guidelines.”

That is sobering stuff—but perhaps, one might speculate, Trump has learned from his past mistakes and would be better prepared to take on crises if given a second chance? Unfortunately, there is no evidence this is the case. In fact, everything we know about Trump, including what he is openly telling us about his plans for the future makes clear that the prospect of a possible second Trump term is absolutely bone chilling.

Everyone makes mistakes—the question is whether we can acknowledge our errors and learn from them. John Kelly, who served as Chief of Staff in the Trump administration, warns that Trump is uniquely incapable of admitting that “he might have been wrong,” saying Trump “simply doesn’t have the ability to do that.”

Not surprisingly, Trump has said he has “no regrets” about his failed Covid response. This is an unnerving indication that, if Trump faced another crisis—whether a pandemic or something else—he’d make the same kind of errors.

Of course, pandemics aren’t the only kind of crisis presidents have to worry about.

Trump’s economic agenda could cost jobs and raise prices


Presidents can also confront or even cause economic crises as well. As noted, Trump’s failed Covid response caused damage to the US economy. Trump’s plans for a second term could lead to similarly disastrous consequences. A recent study concludes that Trump’s threat to renew a trade war with China could cost the US economy nearly 750,000 jobs.

Trump has also embraced or is considering several policies that could cause inflation to skyrocket, including proposals to reduce the value of the US dollar, apply a 10% tariff on all foreign imports, and extend his 2017 corporate tax cuts.

One economist calls the prospect of a second Trump term in office “the greatest threat to economies and markets around the world.”

The loss of Roe has put pregnant women’s lives at risk


The president’s responsibility to keep Americans safe and secure extends beyond public health threats and jolts to the economy. Americans should be able to reasonably expect that they will have access to life-saving health care. Tragically, Trump’s past decisions and his plans for the future put women’s lives in danger. Trump has bragged about nominating three Supreme Court justices who were instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade.

With Roe overturned, pregnant women have lost control over reproductive rights, and the results have been horrifying. A recent ABC News report highlighted a group of women who “said they have been turned away in medical emergencies for not being sick enough, had their health care delayed or denied due to state laws and been told they have to continue their pregnancies despite devastating, fatal diagnoses for their babies – even if their pregnancies put their own lives at risk.”

Trump thinks this dystopian reality shows that “The states are working brilliantly. It’s working the way it’s supposed to.”

Cozying up to anti-American dictators


The United States faces a number of national security threats, including from Russia, China, North Korea, and foreign as well as domestic terrorists. In his campaign speeches, when Trump outlines his plans for a possible second term, he says nothing about how he would deal with these threats.

Presidents are supposed to think in terms of the national interest, but Trump thinks only in terms of self-interest. As a result, candidate Trump sees his political opponents—not foreign dictators or terrorists—as the real enemies to worry about, promising at his political rallies to “demolish the deep state…rout the fake news media” and “throw off the sick political class that hates our country.”

The United States faces actual adversaries who wish to do us harm, including dictators like Putin in Russia, Xi in China, and Kim in North Korea. For Trump, the danger comes from his critics and political opponents, who he describes as “vermin” he will “root out.” Trump promises “retribution”—not against America’s foes, but against Americans who do not support him politically.

When it comes to America’s real adversaries, Trump demonstrates weakness and appeasement, publicly encouraging the Russian dictator, who has already invaded Ukraine, to do “whatever the hell [he wants]” to NATO allies who fall out of favor with Trump.

A stark choice in November


Donald Trump has shown us, time and again, precisely who he is. When it comes to national security, his past record and his future plans make it crystal clear that he is simply not capable of taking on the immense responsibility that goes with being President of the United States.

This isn’t a partisan point—conservatives and Republicans, including some of the people who worked most closely with Trump when he was President, are issuing stark warnings. John Bolton, who served as national security advisor, says Trump is “unfit to be President.”

Sarah Matthews, then deputy press secretary, recalls Trump’s failure to protect the United States Capitol when his supporters attacked it on January 6, 2021, concluding that In my eyes, it was a complete dereliction of duty that he did not uphold his oath of office. I lost all faith in him that day.”

Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations, says that Trump “has no business being commander in chief.”

Former chief of staff Kelly perhaps puts it most succinctly, describing Trump as “A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law,” before concluding: “There is nothing more [about Trump] that can be said, God help us.”

Americans don’t need to seek divine intervention. This November, they will have the chance to decide whether Trump’s record shows that he can be trusted to keep Americans safe.

  • Chris Edelson

    Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of Government at American University and has published two books on US presidential power.



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