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It’s about trust

It comes down to this: In a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, people rely on government more than usual — and they expect government leaders to be worthy of that increased trust.

That doesn’t mean those leaders need to be perfect. Sure, it’s wonderful if government happens to have brilliant people able to solve difficult problems, but trust is not built on genius. In general, people want leaders to care about them, to work hard for the common good, to be competent and to be honest. When leaders do something wrong (and it’s always a matter of when, not if), people want them to own up to it and make amends as quickly as possible.

When leaders are faced with overwhelming problems, the most important thing is not to have it all figured out, but rather to show up, be there for people, do your job and tell them the truth.

When the enormity of the pandemic hit home last year, then-President Donald Trump and his administration just weren’t up to the task. Compassion, hard work and honesty were things Trump believed — wrongly — were weaknesses rather than strengths. He was more interested in standing on the sidelines and picking on others (especially his political enemies) as they struggled to manage the crisis.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo received national praise in the early days of the pandemic because it looked like he and his staff cared and were working hard, and because he displayed honesty in his daily press conferences by focusing on facts as they emerged and acknowledging what the state could and couldn’t do at that time. That built trust.

When you come to trust someone, you feel more betrayed when they let you down.

Cuomo let the accolades go to his head. He wrote a book sharing his “leadership lessons” even before the pandemic’s second wave arrived. He accepted an International Emmy award for his televised press conferences. And as time went on, he took the president’s bait and shifted more and more to ripping the Trump administration, further politicizing the crisis.

Cuomo also refused to admit his administration’s biggest blunder — ordering nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients for recovery in March 2020, intending to free up hospital beds but instead bringing the coronavirus into the places it was most deadly.

It’s not like this was a secret. Trump and other Republicans were accusing Cuomo of murder. It was deadly, but if Cuomo had owned up to it and showed some humility, maybe trust in him would have held. Many New Yorkers saw it as a regrettable error, not done out of malice.

Instead, the Cuomo administration defended the bad move and spent half the year refusing to release public statistics about nursing home deaths to the state Legislature, the news media and other groups. They stuck with nursing home death numbers that anyone who was paying even a little attention knew was an undercount. They were obviously hiding the evidence, and of course, that only made things worse. Instead of working to regain public trust, Cuomo undermined it.

It was inevitable the data would come out. Not only did minority Republicans keep clamoring for it, but Cuomo’s fellow Democrats finally got sick of this messed-up behavior. Attorney General Letitia James was his close ally until her office’s investigation revealed the true nursing home death numbers. Now numerous Democrats in both the state Legislature and Congress are calling for further investigation into this alleged cover-up. They no longer trust him like they did, and why should they? His desperate attempts to protect his pride made the whole party look bad.

Finally, only after his top aide was caught admitting to Democratic lawmakers that they withheld the data so Republicans wouldn’t use it against them, Cuomo said Monday his administration should have released the data sooner — but still he stopped short of an apology. When asked whether there should be an investigation, he had the gall to say there was nothing to investigate. Maybe others should be the judge of that. If nothing else, there needs to be an investigation into whether the governor’s actions deserve legal consequences.

All of this should be an elementary lesson to anyone who works or wants to work in government. If you lose people’s trust, you’re in trouble — so be trustworthy. It’s not that hard, but politics scrambles people’s brains. It makes them see the world in terms of a partisan battleground, instead of how it needs to be in order for our system of government to work properly.

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