Donald Trump is a rancid racist, misogynist, liar, fearmonger, panderer and the undisputed world champion of self-aggrandizement. Until a few days ago, however, George W. Bush was winning in the vile metric of the body count: From September 11 to Afghanistan to Iraq, the sheer volume of human suffering that took place during the eight grinding years of the Bush administration bloodbath — suffering that has continued unabated even unto this moment before us — put him in rare and terrible historic company.
When I woke up this morning, COVID-19 had laid its cold finger on the shoulders of nearly 1.5 million people worldwide, killing more than 80,000 of them. Here in the United States, where the buck allegedly stops on a desk in a rounded White House office, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases will surpass 400,000 before I finish typing this sentence, and the CNN snapshot on my TV screen puts the undercounted death toll at 12,911.
That number — 12,911 — punched me in the heart for reasons far beyond the simple, obvious, staggering fact of it. I am one of those who, for the last 19 years and likely for the remainder of my life, sees “911” and thinks not about emergency responders, but about bodies plunging from mortally slashed buildings on a perfect Tuesday morning. If I catch a clock at 9:11, be it a.m. or p.m., I will wince, and the remainder of my day will be ever so slightly stained with old blood that still smells fresh.
Bush knew of the threat to come.
“It was perhaps the most famous presidential briefing in history,” reported The New York Times on the 11th anniversary of the attacks. “On Aug. 6, 2001, President George W. Bush received a classified review of the threats posed by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, Al Qaeda. That morning’s ‘presidential daily brief’ — the top-secret document prepared by America’s intelligence agencies — featured the now-infamous heading: ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.’ A few weeks later, on 9/11, Al Qaeda accomplished that goal.”
The theories — in the conspiratorial vein, along with the obvious ones about negligence, greed and opportunism that have sprouted up around Bush and September 11 — are legion. The rock-bottom facts, however, are indisputable: The outgoing Clinton administration loudly warned the incoming Bush administration about the heightened level of threat, intelligence professionals like Richard Clarke continued to do so from within the administration, and still the towers came down in a hail of fire, smoke and tears.
Nearly two decades later, Trump similarly knew about the current COVID catastrophe before it exploded. As early as November, a U.S. intelligence report warned the White House that the pandemic could be “cataclysmic.”
Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s top economic advisers, warned the White House on January 29 that COVID could kill more than 500,000 people in the U.S. On February 23, Navarro warned the White House again: COVID is coming, it will be bad, and worse if the administration doesn’t get on the stick straightaway and at speed. Navarro was bounced from the coronavirus task force after sending his memos.
The day after Navarro’s January memo was written, Trump said, “We think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.” The day after Navarro’s February memo was written, Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.… Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
This is but a sliver of the lies, denials and failures that have painted the Trump White House red with the blood of coronavirus victims. Rather than rally to the moment and put his mistakes behind him, Trump has instead made wild and false claims on national television, dumped the guy overseeing the outlay of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus/rescue bill and picked fights with Democratic governors while failing to organize any form of coherent pandemic response. And if the reports are true, he’s just getting started.
Like Bush, Trump knew that calamity was at our doorstep. Both did nothing worth mentioning to thwart these crises, both took gross advantage of them where and when they could, and both will be recalled by history as murderously incompetent heads of state. The argument about who’s worse is over. I am content to call it a tie, for now.