Veteran journalist Bob Woodward released a new book on Wednesday based in part on a series of interviews he conducted with President Trump. The most explosive revelations — which are on tape — are that President Trump knew in early February that the coronavirus was deadlier than the flu and that he was fully aware of the danger it posed to the U.S. “This is deadly stuff,” he told Woodward on Feb. 7. In a subsequent interview on March 19, he confirmed that he deliberately misled the public about the gravity of what was to come. “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The jaw-dropping recordings made undeniable what had long been obvious — that the president deliberately misled the American people about the severity of the virus, that the administration’s public statements in late February and early March were not merely misappraisals but were instead filled with deliberate, destructive lies. Yet the reaction of many observers was to retreat to familiar corners — either hopefully theorizing that Woodward’s book might damage Trump’s re-election campaign, or confidently relaying a (well justified) cynicism that no matter what we learn about President Trump’s disgraceful ineptitude and endless betrayals of the public’s trust, it will not shake his core supporters from their commitment to him.
This will-it-or-won’t-it framing, which always revolves around guessing the political fallout of the latest scandal to emerge from the Trump administration, only serves to obscure what should be most enraging: that the president’s public downplaying of a virus that would soon bring ordinary life to a halt for virtually every person in the world led to thousands, probably tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in the United States.
How many people went heedlessly about their ordinary lives in February and early March, blithely unaware of the virus which was already circulating and causing the disease we now call COVID-19? I boarded a flight to Philadelphia on Feb. 22 to see my parents at the tail end of my father’s weeks-long ordeal with daily radiation for a recurrence of prostate cancer. Desperate to give them a pick-me-up in their lonely winter of discontent, I could instead have unwittingly killed them both. I could have brought it back home to Chicago with me, endangering the lives of my wife and my son as well as my students, coworkers, and friends.
Tens of thousands of others were not so lucky as we were. They kept taking their cruises and their vacations, going to bars and restaurants, visiting one another in homes and apartments, as the virus went slowly from a vaguely ominous background curiosity — they locked down a whole city in China? — to a gathering dread when the bodies started piling up in Lombardy and other parts of Europe. Ultimately, it was probably the shocking cancellation of the rest of the NBA season on March 11, rather than anything the president of the United States did, which led to widespread changes in behavior that preceded official lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders.
It must be particularly galling for New Yorkers. Some estimate that as many as a quarter of New York City’s residents contracted the virus, many of them during that period in which the president was willfully and disgracefully lying to the American people. More than 32,000 have died. Given the precautions most sensible people are now taking and improvements in treatment, it is unlikely that any region or city in the United States will suffer like New York did even if the fall spike epidemiologists worry about materializes. More so than any other place in the country, New York City could have been spared immense amounts of death and illness had Trump simply taken his job seriously and publicly communicated the gravity of the situation the moment he himself knew.
Instead, he lied to us, over and over and over again. In between that Feb. 7 phone call with Woodward and the shambolic March 11 press conference when he still claimed that for the “vast majority of Americans” the risk was “very, very low,” President Trump unloaded a fusillade of statements meant to give Americans a false sense of security.
Feb. 23: “We have it very much under control in this country.”
Feb. 24: “Stock market starting to look very good to me!”
Feb. 26: “And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck.”
Feb. 29: “Everything is really under control.”
Look, there aren’t many people who dislike Trump more than me, but if he had gotten up in one of those press conferences and said “Cancel your travel plans and stay home, this thing is for real,” there is no way I would have taken that flight to Philadelphia. A competent speechwriter could have conveyed this information in mid-February without triggering panic. Millions of people would have taken precautions weeks earlier than they did, sparing the country hundreds of thousands of infections and fatalities. And the compromised lemmings in the right-wing media wouldn’t have spent months telling their enormous audiences that there was nothing to worry about, that it was all just a hoax designed to reverse the results of the 2016 election.
While you can understand why the president wouldn’t want to get up and tell everyone to hoard bulk goods from Costco (which they did anyway!), there is simply no excuse for lying to people who subsequently got themselves and their loved ones sick or killed with actions they would not have taken had President Trump just told them the unvarnished truth: that something wicked was this way coming, that their lives were soon going to be upended, and that they would have to make painful adjustments to their daily lives to avert mass catastrophe.
That’s why my reaction after reading news reports about the book wasn’t to wonder about how many points the ensuing scandal would or wouldn’t add to Joe Biden’s polling lead, or to ponder the ethics of Woodward sitting on this vital information for seven long months, but rather something that has become increasingly rare in the Trump era: crushing shock.
It struck me anew how unfathomable it is, or should be, that the person entrusted with the presidency, whose actions and inactions can have terrible and unforeseen consequences for millions of people, purposefully concealed his own knowledge about the coming of one of the worst crises to afflict humanity in close to a century. The selfishness and the bad faith are staggering. While Trump couldn’t have stopped COVID-19 from getting here, his lies and inexcusable inaction sent a lot of people to their graves and caused millions of others to this day not to take this virus seriously.
The decision to hide the seriousness of the crisis was arguably the most destructive single decision ever made by an American president. And we will be living with the long tail of its terrible consequences for many years to come.