By Ian Pattison
More Trumpwatch today because, let’s be honest, it’s impossible to look away.
In one of 18 recorded conversations with renowned American newspaperman Bob Woodward earlier this year, President Donald Trump said this: “But really the job of a president is to keep our country safe, to keep it prosperous.” Without a sense of national safety, there is chaos, and with chaos comes economic uncertainty.
And so, on Feb. 7, Woodward asked the president about the deadly and unpredictable coronavirus.
“It’s “a very tricky one, a very delicate one,” Trump said. “It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.“
Fast forward to a Feb. 26 press briefing and Trump changes his tune: “This is like a flu . . . We’re going very substantially down, not up (in cases) . . . that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” The U.S. death rate had risen to 60 that very day.
Back to Woodward on Feb. 7: “This is more deadly (than flu), this is five per cent (fatality rate) versus one per cent. This is deadly stuff.” At the same time he was telling the American people it was no big deal, that it would wither and die on its own.
Feb. 26: “The flu (death rate) is higher than that (of the virus),” he lied at the press briefing. Asked if he was worried about the growing pandemic, Trump replied, “No, because we’re ready. We’re really prepared.” In fact, most medical authorities were crying out for faster, better testing. Ventilators and personal protective equipment were being released slowly and selectively from the federal stockpile.
Columbia University has reported that if the U.S. government had issued social distancing guidelines just one week earlier than it did, in mid-March, 36,000 lives could have been saved. Action two weeks earlier would have prevented 84 per cent of deaths and 82 per cent of cases, Columbia said.
That’s on Trump. Those additional deaths are his responsibility. His craven refusal to follow early medical advice in the interest of maintaining an economy that is the lone bright spot on his soiled presidency led directly to tens of thousands of needless, lonely, painful deaths.
Trump’s excuse is that he didn’t want to panic the American public. Really? Speaking at the Republican convention, the president depicted Joe Biden, his election opponent, as "the destroyer of American greatness." He said the Democrats would unleash "violent anarchists" upon U.S. cities.
“I didn’t want to jump up and down and scream ‘death, death’,” Trump said at a short press conference Thursday to answer this latest controversy. Apparently he thinks the average American is a ‘fraidy cat, unable to handle the truth.
Imagine if Winston Churchill had taken that tack as the Nazis surged across Europe in the Second World War. Churchill did not say, as Trump did, “No, I’m not worried. I think we’re doing a fantastic job,” when all evidence screamed to the contrary. Instead, just after Paris fell and in perhaps his finest speech, Churchill said: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill. National leadership is essential in times of national crisis. Trump doesn’t have it, doesn’t get it, and never will.
A passage in John Barry’s 2004 book, The Great Influenza, about the 1918 flu epidemic was repeated on TV this week: “Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. . . A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”
Trump has tried to turn the whole thing around by blaming Woodward for failing to report his concerns about the disparity between medical knowledge and Trump’s apparent ignorance about it. This theory has taken on a Twitter life of its own, including Trump’s assertion that Woodward didn’t speak up because he secretly agrees with the president’s COVID response. Mm-hmm.
First, Trump is an inveterate liar. Woodward has said, in effect, ‘How was I to know if he knew what he was talking about?’
Second, Woodward wasn’t sure that Trump’s remarks were based on reliable information until May when the coronavirus had spread across the U.S. Reporting then what Trump had said in February would have been reporting what the country and the world by now knew about how the virus spread. At that point, he said in an Associated Press story, the issue was no longer one of public health but of politics. His priority became getting the story out before the election in November.
As Alex Shephard writes this week in The New Republic, “ . . . the notion that (Woodward) played a significant role in the pandemic by not publishing his interview sooner simply doesn’t track. The fact that the president was intentionally downplaying the danger of COVID-19 was both apparent and well documented in the spring; Trump himself admitted that he was privileging politics over public health. If Woodward had published this information in February (or May, when he says he confirmed it), would it have made a difference in fighting the virus? Back then, the president’s unscientific approach and general dismissiveness was the story. Indeed, there are compelling reasons to believe that this information is more powerful now, with the election around the corner.”
Third, who should Woodward have told? Everyone in Trumpland, including senior personnel on the coronavirus task force, was on board with minimizing the virus and responding to it weakly.
Reprising a famous phrase from the Watergate era, when the reporting done by Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post helped lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Woodward said his mission was to determine, “What did he know and when did he know it?”
Bottom line, writes Shephard: “The freak-out over the timing of Woodward’s revelations isn’t just misplaced — it’s a gift to Trump, obscuring the damning takeaways of Woodward’s reporting.”
But enough of Woodward and back to the real point of all of this. Dr. Celine Grounder, an experienced infectious disease specialist in New York, characterized Trump’s failure to act publicly on the knowledge he possessed as “medical malpractice and negligent homicide on a grand basis.”
Trump will tell his willfully blind and hopelessly hoodwinked base of supporters that it’s all just another hoax, overblown by the media to discredit a duly elected president. When you try to say that your own words are a lie, you are in big trouble.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.