March 31, 2020

Our coronavirus numbers continue to climb. Today America has more than 185,000 known infections and Covid-19 has killed 3,768 people, more than those who died on 9/11. Coronavirus continues to weaken the economy as well. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 400 points today, ending the worst quarter in stock market history, despite more than $2 trillion in relief measures and actions by the Federal Reserve to inject money into the economy.

Today, the White House warned Americans to expect 100,000 to 240,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic; more—as many as 2.2 million-- if Americans do not strictly self-isolate.

This best case scenario is close to the numbers of US Army soldiers-- 235,000—who died in battle in World War Two.

Trump is trying to spin this appalling disaster as a victory. He has declared that if we are able to keep the deaths in the lower range “we all together have done a very good job.”

The president and his team are eager to absolve him of responsibility for America’s slow and erratic response to the pandemic, a response that will cost the lives of thousands more of our friends and family than the disease otherwise would have claimed. Trump has repeatedly said that it was “nobody’s fault,” just one of those “things that happened.” Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to the president, recently expanded on this line, saying Trump “is presiding over the country’s response to an unanticipated, unprecedented pandemic of global proportions, and he is getting credit for his handling of the pandemic … In due time, he will preside over the great American comeback, which is more likely to be in the summer or fall, depending on the effectiveness of mitigation and relief efforts and the uncertain path of the virus itself.”

This is gaslighting, designed to absolve the president of blame for this disaster and to pave the way for the crisis to be redefined as a victory before the 2020 election.

Who could possibly have known that a pandemic was coming? Every White House official. In preparation for taking over in January 2017, outgoing Obama administration officials worked through a pandemic emergency with the incoming officials, but the administration did not make epidemic preparedness a priority. It cut more than two-thirds of the staff at the Centers for Disease Control in China, from about 47 people to 14. It cut the pandemic response team from the National Security Council in 2018, leaving no epidemic disease specialist on the NSC. It had a playbook for managing a pandemic, prepared in 2016 by officials in the Obama administration after the Ebola crisis; Trump’s people ignored it.

More specifically, after reports of the disease developing in China emerged at the end of December 2019, U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly warned Trump in January and February in classified briefings what was coming; he continued to downplay it. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) asked the administration to declare a public health emergency in late January to free up money to fight the coronavirus. But as late as February 24, Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”

“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this,” one official said, “but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it…. The system was blinking red.”

Today Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried a different argument for Trump’s frittering away two months that would have protected us from the worst of the pandemic. McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt that the impeachment trial of Trump had distracted the president from paying adequate attention to the coronavirus.

This was too much for George Conway, founder of the anti-Trump super PAC the Lincoln Project. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he called it “gaslighting of the highest order.” “Look at the calendar,” he wrote. Impeachment was pretty much over on January 31, when Senators killed the idea of testimony, although the final vote wasn't until February 5. Trump went to Mar-a-Lago at least four times in the first two months of the year, held frequent campaign rallies, and repeatedly went golfing. And he commented often on the coronavirus, telling reporters and tweeting that “we have it totally under control.”

From a political standpoint, as well, this argument doesn’t hold water. If Trump and his advisors were focusing at all on the coronavirus in those crucial weeks, they would have deployed then the argument that impeachment was hurting their ability to respond adequately to the crisis. It was a winning political argument that would have played well across the country (in addition to promoting our ability to fight the epidemic).

For his part, Trump seemed torn between having an excuse and having to admit he hadn’t done a bang-up job. During today’s press briefing, he said: “Did it divert my attention? I think I'm getting A+'s for the way I handled myself during a phony impeachment, OK? ... But certainly, I guess, I thought of it and I think I probably acted -- I don't think I would have done any better had I not been impeached, OK?”

I am belaboring this point tonight because this deliberate effort to change the public perception of what really happened is a profound attack on our democracy. While this disinformation is designed to absolve Trump of blame he deserves, it is far more than that. We are seeing government officials rewriting our history in real time. And in October, if campaign officials for the Republican candidate are telling voters that Trump was a hero for his handling of the unanticipated coronavirus despite Democrats’ impeachment witch hunt, I want to have laid down this marker so that there is a record of when that story began.

As late as February 26, Trump said, “This is a flu. This is like a flu.” “I mean, view this the same as the flu.” Today he said: “’A lot of people’” said “’ride it out. Don’t do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu.’ But it’s not the flu. It’s vicious.”

Today the editorial board of the Boston Globe wrote: “the president has blood on his hands.”

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Notes:

https://www.nbcnews.com/business/markets/wall-street-just-had-one-its-worst-quarters-history-n1172966

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/live-blog/live-coronavirus-updates-u-s-death-toll-passes-3-000-n1172706

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/30/what-kind-person-calls-100000-plus-dead-very-good-job/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/trump-says-keeping-us-covid-19-deaths-to-100000-would-be-a-very-good-job

playbook: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/25/trump-coronavirus-national-security-council-149285

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-cdc-exclusiv/exclusive-u-s-slashed-cdc-staff-inside-china-prior-to-coronavirus-outbreak-idUSKBN21C3N5

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-intelligence-reports-from-january-and-february-warned-about-a-likely-pandemic/2020/03/20/299d8cda-6ad5-11ea-b5f1-a5a804158597_story.html

https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-worst-intelligence-failure-us-history-covid-19/

Conway: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/31/kellyanne-conways-ugly-deceptions-preview-big-lie-come/

George Conway: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/31/impeachment-didnt-distract-coronavirus-preparations-trump-did/

Ride it out:

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/31/politics/mcconnell-impeachment-coronavirus/index.html

Schumer: https://www.schumer.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/schumer-reveals-cdc-cannot-access-rapid-response-dollars-that-can-help-stop-potentially-deadly-coronavirus-until-feds-declare-official-public-health-emergency-senator-urges-feds-to-make-the-declaration-now-so-cdc-can-unlock-tens-of-millions-in-the-proactive-war-to-beat-back-spread-

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/30/opinion/president-unfit-pandemic/