So far, I haven’t blamed the president for COVID deaths. Blaming elected leaders for citizens’ deaths is a low blow, and almost always hyperbole. Yes, I’ve said he’s mismanaged our response to the pandemic; I’ve said he wasted precious time; he’s obviously undermined his own experts repeatedly. But I thought his behavior was born of stubbornness and wishful thinking, not active malevolence.
I was being far too generous.
President Trump gave Bob Woodward—one half of the journalistic team that brought down Nixon—eighteen interviews, which Woodward recorded. He also encouraged White House officials to talk to Woodward, believing his upcoming book would be sympathetic to Trump. (I said he was malevolent; I didn’t say he was smart.) On February 7—February 7—he revealed the following:
“It goes through the air, Bob…you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed…It’s also more deadly than your—you know, your, even your strenuous flus. You know, people don’t realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right? Pretty amazing. And then I say, well, is that the same thing? This is more deadly. This is 5 per—you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know? So, this is deadly stuff.”
In the same interview, he said it could also kill young people as well as the elderly.
To recap, by February 7, Trump knew that coronavirus was passed through the air and therefore highly contagious, could kill anyone, and was at least five times deadlier than the flu. He knew.
Armed with this information, the president then did the following:
Feb 10: Rally in New Hampshire, thousands attend.
Feb 19: Rally in Phoenix, thousands attend.
Feb 20: Rally in Colorado Springs, thousands attend.
Feb 21: Rally in Las Vegas, thousands attend.
Feb 27: At a press conference, Trump says of COVID, “View this the same as the flu…Treat this like you treat the flu, and it’s gonna be fine.”
Feb 28: Rally in South Carolina, thousands attend. “Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” Trump tells them. “They tried the impeachment hoax,” he says, then lumps the virus in with Russia and impeachment: “And this is their new hoax.”
Mar 9: More than a month after telling Woodward the virus was at least five times deadlier than the flu, he tweeted this:
That was 190,978 deaths ago.
But people listen to him. They believe him. They believe in him. He is the President of the United States of America. I have personally heard directly from multiple Trump supporters that the virus is a hoax, that it’s a tool of Democrats and media to affect the election, that it’s no worse than the flu. Millions of Americans believe these things he told them. He has inarguably influenced people’s perception of risk, and therefore their behavior—which has almost certainly led to thousands upon thousands of deaths.
Over and over and over, the president downplayed the risk this virus posed to Americans. In other words, he deliberately lied to us. His supporters can’t simply deny it: he said it directly to Bob Woodward, on tape, on March 19. “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
That’s the line he and the GOP are sticking with—it’s his only conceivable defense. In fact, just yesterday he told Sean Hannity, “I don’t want to scare people.” So let’s take a closer look at how consistent he’s been in choosing not to scare Americans.
Very calming. Definitely wouldn’t lead to scenes like this in the Michigan legislature shortly after:
He doesn’t want to scare anyone, but you should know that Joe Biden is going to destroy your neighborhood and the American Dream.
Even back in 2016, he didn’t want to scare me, but did want to let me know that if I didn’t vote for him, I would get chaos, crime, and violence.
He turned out to be right about that one.
He doesn’t want to scare anyone, but this past Friday in New Hampshire he warned voters, “Just look at Joe Biden supporters on the street screaming and shouting at bystanders with unhinged, manic rage.”
In 2018, he wasn’t trying to scare Americans when he tweeted that “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border,” a caravan he characterized as “an invasion.”
Yes, President Trump does not want to scare anyone—unless it’s politically advantageous for him.
Any competent, ethical leader could have landed somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between “not panicking the populace” and “deliberately lying to Americans for months and giving half the country a drastically inaccurate understanding of the threat we face.”
Naturally, Trump has lashed out at the man he gave those eighteen interviews to, accusing him of a “political hit job,” calling his book “boring,” and referring to him as “rapidly fading Bob Woodward.” But the president is forgetting one of the natural laws of Trumpian physics: there is always a tweet.
I don’t know if any of this will move the needle. Trump famously bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters, and what seemed hyperbolic at the time has proven to be shockingly accurate.
But I keep coming back to those rallies. He knew how contagious it was; he knew how deadly it was, and he still filled those arenas with thousands of people who loved him, so he could hear them cheer and chant his name while he lied to them. He cared more about his own insatiable need for praise than his supporters’ lives.
If that doesn’t change their minds, nothing will.