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Trump Now Has Free Rein to Cook the Books When It Comes to COVID

If Trump’s brazen action is not thwarted, we could enter this dangerous winter deeper in the dark about COVID’s spread.

President Trump speaks to the media in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

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The presidential administration of Donald J. Trump has, at long last, finally hit the panic button on COVID-19, but in an utterly terrifying way that must be thwarted at all costs.

After months spent lying, ignoring skyrocketing infection rates, disdaining science, disdaining the masks recommended by science, denying responsibility for anything, and championing armed right-wingers assembled in defiance of social distancing strictures, the White House appears to have figured out that COVID isn’t going to “disappear.”

If every reputable poll on the planet is even vaguely accurate, in fact, the only thing likely to disappear is Trump’s presence in the Oval Office after January, due in no small part to his bungled handling of the ongoing pandemic. It seems all too clear this revelation has hit Trump and his people like a bucket of ice water, and their reaction in immediate retrospect was as predictable as the tide. Ramp up testing? Promote masks? Delay school openings? Act responsibly in any form or fashion?

No. Cover it up instead. If a tree dies of COVID in the forest and the administration doesn’t report it, did it happen? Or is it just more “fake news?” We’ve all seen enough of this president to know the answer to that.

See, we don’t do COVID testing at the necessary scale in this country because testing creates numbers, and Trump hates numbers. Numbers are the aria of his ongoing failure, the daily tale of the looming electoral threats to him and his party. If there are no numbers, goes the thinking, nobody can say bad things about him on television.

Trump has therefore determined that, beginning today, his administration will commandeer the COVID-19 patient numbers, take full control of them, and maybe even get the National Guard involved in this astonishing and dangerous power grab.

“The Trump administration has ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and send all Covid-19 patient information to a central database in Washington beginning on Wednesday,” reports The New York Times. “The move has alarmed health experts who fear the data will be politicized or withheld from the public.”

Alarmed? You don’t say. A president who cannot be trusted to truthfully report his breakfast order is putting himself in charge of collecting and reporting COVID numbers, just as the rates of infection and death are leaping higher, and in the heat of an election year. What could possibly go wrong?

“The Trump administration is asking governors to consider sending the National Guard to hospitals to help improve data collection about novel coronavirus patients, supplies and capacity, according to a letter, internal emails and officials familiar with the plans,” reports The Washington Post. “The move is part of a new data reporting protocol for hospitals that eliminates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a recipient of that information — a decision that is sparking controversy about whether or not the data is reliable.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the crown jewels of the federal government, an institution so revered around the world that many nations created their own versions of it. The CDC was stoutly apolitical until Trump came along and began tearing it to pieces because they were doing science when science became politically inconvenient.

In place of the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be charged with collecting and disbursing COVID data supplied by hospitals across the country. The director of HHS, Alex Azar, is the poster boy for how to keep your job in the Trump administration: Go ahead and fail, but kiss the boss’s ass and you’ll be fine.

Azar, who made his fortune bilking diabetics with boosted insulin prices at Eli Lilly, has carried Trump’s COVID water since the pandemic began, and there is no reason to believe he will act any differently if the numbers provided to HHS displease the president. Short of William Barr or Stephen Miller, Azar is the worst possible person to be given control of such vital data. His morals are Trump’s morals, which means he has no perceptible morals at all.

Understand why this is happening right now: Trump gave nary a damn when COVID was ravaging places like Boston, New York City and Detroit, because “his voters” don’t live there. Now, however, the South and West are being pummeled by the pandemic, specifically in regions flush with his supporters. This could be a death knell for his reelection hopes. Trump has already failed those people; he cannot help them now without admitting his own culpability, which he will never do, so instead he will steal the numbers and hope nobody notices.

It’s terrifying what COVID information control by a desperate administration in an election year during a murderous pandemic could lead to, precisely when knowledge and data are all that the people really have to protect themselves. If this goes the way it has the deep potential to, “Hey, that outbreak wasn’t so bad!” will be the administration’s refrain in two weeks, even as the refrigerator trucks idle outside the hospitals, their cargo bays already filled with the dead.

At present, because of our shabby testing, we still do not fully know just how sick we are as a nation. If this brazen action is not immediately and permanently stopped, we run the risk of entering this potentially deadly winter even deeper in the dark about our plight.

This is the moment for the CDC to rebel against this administration and collect that COVID data anyway, and this is the moment for hospitals to aid them in this endeavor. This is the moment for Democrats in Congress to stop issuing statements and start laying their bodies on the gears of this insidious machine.

Information this vital cannot be solely controlled by Trump and his toadies. If we have learned anything over these long, bleak years, we have absolutely learned that.

“When you mix science and politics, you get politics,” writes John M. Barry, the author of The Great Influenza, a towering history of the 1918 influenza pandemic and an indispensable book in this critical moment. And “with the coronavirus, the United States has proved politics hasn’t worked.”

We should be listening to people like Barry with all our available faculties. Trump’s rancid COVID politics have already infected a lethally sickened country. We cannot let this president — a proven liar — get away with this broad-daylight and politically motivated data theft.

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