“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” Trump tweeted on March 9 regarding the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of Coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
One month earlier on February 7, Trump told famed journalist Bob Woodward, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. This is deadly stuff.” The administration did not declare the pandemic a national emergency until March 13.
Ten days after sending that dismissive March 9 tweet, Trump remained unwilling to publicly acknowledge that the virus could be transmitted through the air, and continued to downplay the need for a public mask mandate. “I wanted to always play it down,” he told Woodward that day. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
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Nearly 6.4 million people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID, and more than 190,000 have died. A key forecasting model created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington now predicts 400,000 deaths by January 1. Because Trump has repeatedly sabotaged the data collection process throughout the pandemic, those numbers are almost certainly lower than the actual totals.
“Maybe you can make the argument that he should have said masks and social distancing earlier as a result of that,” former Bush strategist Karl Rove argued during a Wednesday Fox News appearance, “particularly if he knew that it was aerosol borne. But again, we expect perfection from people in places where perfection is not possible. And in dealing with pandemics is a place in particular where the unknowns are large and difficult to deal with.”
“Perfection.” Of all the words I could summon to describe Trump’s presidential performance over the six months and one day since he wrote that March tweet, “perfection” would not be among them. Not long after he sent that tweet, I had a go-round with a plumber who loudly refused to wear a mask because “This is just the flu!” He may as well have been reading a White House cue card right there in my damn kitchen.
Reaction from the scientific community to Trump’s comments, which appear in Woodward’s new book Rage, was swift and horrified. “If accurate, this reporting suggests that the decision to avoid a serious response was deliberate,” Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipstitch told The Boston Globe. “We have lost 150,000 Americans and counting, and it increasingly looks as if others will have long-term health consequences of this infection. As a scientist, those are the facts. As a citizen, it is hard to know which is worse — that this was done out of ignorance, when there was so much clear information, or that, as this reporting suggests, it was done deliberately.”
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose father succumbed to COVID in June, likewise responded to the Woodward revelations. “All I can think about is my father and the nearly 200,000 other people who lost their lives to COVID-19 as a result of this president’s gross negligence and lies,” she tweeted yesterday. “Trump had the power to save lives and went out of his way not to.”
If history is any guide, there will almost certainly be no immediate consequences for Trump due to the revelations in Woodward’s book, because of course there won’t.
We have reached the point in U.S. politics where the Lord God of Hosts could descend from heaven on a pillar of fire, denounce Trump from atop Mt. Everest in a voice audible throughout the universe, and Trump’s fiercest defenders would wave it off as “fake news” even as Mitch McConnell gavels God out of order.
The House may do investigations and the media’s editorial rooms will shake their collective fists, but consequences are not on Trump’s menu until November. This is a filthy truth, a hard-earned understanding after all these long years, another throatful of bile to be swallowed.
Bob Woodward, however, is another matter. As the criticism of his decision to withhold vital COVID data from the public for months erupted, the author told the Associated Press “that he needed time to be sure that Trump’s private comments from February were accurate.” Six months of Trump’s vividly public evasions and 200,000 COVID dead strike me as more than enough primary source material to sound an appropriate alarm.
#WoodwardKnew was trending explosively on Twitter yesterday after details from the book hit the wires. “For reasons of their own — venal, selfish, inexcusable reasons, all of them — both Donald Trump and Bob Woodward shirked the duties of their respective occupations and, eventually, hundreds of thousands of Americans may be dead in part because they did,” thundered Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce. “The shame of this should be everlasting.”
It has been a season of this. Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton sat on information that would have been deeply useful during Trump’s impeachment, choosing to keep it to himself in service of his book sales. Bob Woodward has done something similar.
Donald Trump and his people treat their time in Washington D.C. as nothing more than an opportunity to loot the Treasury and enrich their friends. Their relationship to the people is entirely transactional, and is noxiously dismissive of the higher ideals of service or public responsibility.
Journalists, particularly of Woodward’s lofty stature, are beholden to a set of higher ideals and responsibilities as well. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” goes the motto for the calling. By trading people’s lives for a larger payday, by waiting months to divulge vital information that could have forced a COVID course correction out of this administration, the man who helped take down Richard Nixon a half-century ago chose in this instance to afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable.
In the adage of the current age, “It didn’t have to be like this.”
This issue should call to our attention a phenomenon that is broader than Woodward. It must serve as a reminder to all of us in journalism that our work should be a public service, and that our duty to the public should take priority over our personal gain. Nonfiction book authors, in particular, should take note, since the publication timelines for books tend to be long.
Although we aren’t doctors, we journalists would do well to abide by the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm.