A seamless vision of this country’s ever-flowering dystopia unspooled itself in Arizona yesterday. Donald Trump, in furtherance of his quest to reopen the U.S. economy in the middle of the beginning of a lethal pandemic, visited a Honeywell International face mask factory in Phoenix… and refused to wear a mask, despite the big sign at the door telling visitors to WEAR A MASK.
All the workers wore them. The press and Secret Service agents wore them. Trump, senior White House staff and the Honeywell executives present did not. As Trump toured the facility maskless, the factory sound system began blaring “Live and Let Die,” the Guns N’ Roses cover of the old Paul McCartney chestnut.
This was not a worker signaling his disapproval of Trump and his deadly policies. “Live and Let Die” is a staple at Trump’s rallies. It was the perfect Trump anthem, played in Phoenix as he turned his factory tour into another campaign stop at which he signaled to his base, “No masks needed, it’s a hoax” with his usual brazen carelessness. One wonders what Sir Paul thinks of this.
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On the same day, five Republican governors — Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Mike Parson of Missouri — co-signed a preposterous editorial in The Washington Post. The headline read, “Our states stayed open in the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s why our approach worked.”
“The core reasons our states are open for business are the tenacity, grit and heart of our residents,” reads this masterpiece of misdirection. “Their clear-eyed, common-sense approach helped keep our states on track and have set us up to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever. We look forward to leading the way.”
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow sums up the astonishment of the moment: “It’s not often that you can recognize — in real time — the kind of mistake that will haunt a politician every remaining day of their blessed lives, but it helps when five of them co-sign it together, under a headline like this.”
Before you keel off your branch like a bird stunned by thunder, understand that it gets worse.
Rick Bright is the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a Health and Human Services (HHS) sub-agency whose purview is “preparing the nation for influenza pandemics and coordinating production, acquisition, and delivery of medical countermeasures during a pandemic response.”
Bright found himself on the administration’s bad side before the pandemic because he steadfastly refused to play footsie with pharmaceutical executives who had ties to Trump son-in-law and Jack-of-no-trades Jared Kushner. Aeolus Pharmaceuticals wanted Bright to sign off on a raft of unproven and scientifically questionable drugs. He refused. An Aeolus board member threatened to put damaging stories about Bright in the newspapers, but Bright held firm.
When the COVID-19 pandemic landed, Bright labored to fulfill the duties of his agency and prepare the country for what was coming. He found a Health and Human Services agency (HHS) riddled with Trump cronies and sundry political hacks, but little in the way of preparation or informed leadership.
Specifically, a dearth of masks in the country alarmed him. Millions more masks needed to be produced immediately. When Bright raised this concern, he was told to tell people who don’t need masks not to buy them. No significant effort was made to ramp up mask production, because doing so would appear too “big government” to Trump’s base.
This was one of many orders from the Trump White House that has gotten thousands of people killed, most especially medical professionals who waded into the deadly cloud of COVID-19 wearing used masks doused in Lysol. The utter lack of HHS preparation for this or any pandemic stunned Bright. The internal White House and HHS resistance to moving swiftly in the crisis to correct this failure was unfathomable to him. Yet there it was.
Then came the push for chloroquine as a “miracle cure” for COVID. There was no basis in science for Trump’s claims that chloroquine was the answer to the pandemic, and quite a bit of evidence that the drug did more harm than good. Bright made this abundantly clear, but was run over by the White House’s need to make real whatever fantasies Trump spewed from the podium during his disastrous daily briefings.
Bayer Pharmaceuticals donated 3 million doses of chloroquine, and Trump wanted them made available to the public immediately. Given the potential dangers posed by a massive public release of an inadequately tested drug, Bright resisted. Toward the end of March, Bright was ordered by HHS chief counsel to “drop everything and make the chloroquine donated by Bayer widely available to the American public.” The origin of that order was the White House.
Bright refused, and out of a sense of deep fear and responsibility, spoke to a reporter about his concerns. Not long after, he was removed from his post.
On Tuesday, Bright filed a whistleblower complaint explaining all this in the kind of harrowing detail that, once upon a time, would have brought such a culpable administration to its knees. It contains many passages like this:
Dr. Bright acted with urgency to begin to address this pandemic but encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic threat. According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, on January 29, 2020 — eight days after the U.S. announced its first COVID-19 case — Secretary Azar told President Trump that the coronavirus epidemic was under control and that the U.S. government had had never mounted a better interagency response to a crisis.
This should leave us breathless with rage. There is the genesis of Trump’s claims that his advisers told him COVID-19 was no big deal. They told him that because “advisers” like Alex Azar are cowed lickspittles who have learned never to take bad news to the boss, even as true professionals like Bright pound at the White House door begging for someone — anyone — in there to take the science of this seriously.
He was ignored, and then reassigned, and now Bright has penned the first great indictment of Trump’s handling of COVID-19, one that will howl down the hallways of history for all time. When the reckoning for this administration comes — and it will come — Bright’s complaint will be Exhibit A. If Joe Biden does not make this report a daily staple during his campaign, he should stay in his basement and play cribbage with his cat.
Oh, and Jared Kushner also hired a pile of volunteers to create a “shadow task force” that would purportedly help with the COVID-19 response. Admirable, but for the fact that “none of the team’s members had significant experience in health care, procurement or supply-chain operations,” according to The Washington Post. Such a skill set would seem key to such a vital operation, but apparently Kushner couldn’t be bothered to bring on people with practical, applicable skills.
According to a complaint filed by one of the volunteers, who remains anonymous for fear of White House retaliation, the Trump administration’s incompetence in the face of the ravening pandemic was only part of the story. Certain so-called “VIPs,” including a number of Fox News personalities, were given priority access to masks and other protective gear ahead of hospitals and front-line health care workers.
“There’ll be more death,” Trump said yesterday in Arizona. “The virus will pass, with or without a vaccine. And I think we’re doing very well on the vaccines but, with or without a vaccine, it’s going to pass, and we’re going to be back to normal.”
“Normal” in Trumpworld is a cocktail of grift, flagrant incompetence and pandering to the right-wing media. Tens of thousands have died because of it, and tens of thousands more are projected to join them.
People will die not only because Trump is pushing to open the economy without any national testing plan while COVID-19 runs rampant even down the cornrows and wheat fields of the heartland. They will die because professionals like Bright were ignored and removed for offering hard data that was politically inconvenient to the ghoul squatting in the Oval Office. Now Bright has had his say, and in the due course of time, history will also have its own about the president whose soundtrack was “Live and let die.”
Note: In writing this piece, I used as a key reference the 5/6/2020 edition of journalist Judd Legum’s excellent email newsletter, “Popular Information.”