Throughout history, presidents responded to moments of great trial by leveling with the American people about often-dire challenges, but also summoned a collective sense of mission toward a less perilous destination.
Twice, in the 1930s Great Depression and after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, told the country the truth, and it listened and followed. On another day of infamy — 19 years ago on Friday — a Republican, George W. Bush, consoled and united a people violated by a shocking act of terrorism on 9/11.
When Trump’s time came — in February — we now know that he perfectly understood the pernicious nature of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. But while he told Woodward in a phone call “this is deadly stuff” and that the pathogen caused a viciously contagious illness much worse than the flu, Trump didn’t level with the American people. In fact, he deliberately misled them and failed to prepare the government for a vast national effort. Worse, for weeks he continued to misinform the country about the severity of the pathogen that caused the worst global pandemic in 100 years.
The 190,000 American families who lost loved ones and could never say goodbye, the millions of unemployed, the business owners who went bust, a generation of kids who haven’t been in class for months and everyone else self-distanced from their regular lives now face the same question: How different would things have been had the President done his job properly?
‘I always wanted to play it down’
The scandal of negligence Woodward exposed is distinct from the whirlwind of political corruption, abuses of power, chaotic West Wing dramas and wild personality paroxysms that have defined Trump’s presidency. He can’t spin this one away as “fake news” because he is on tape. He indisputably told Woodward he purposefully minimized a once-in-a-century health crisis.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The fallout from the Woodward bombshells just 54 days before the election goes beyond White House palace intrigue. Trump’s own narrative of the crisis has now been shattered. His frequent complaints that no one could have foreseen the magnitude of the challenge from Covid-19 are shown to be flagrantly untrue. Woodward reports that Trump was told by his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, on January 28 that the virus would be the greatest national security threat of his presidency.
Trump told Woodward he could not remember that warning — but that “I’m sure if he said it — you know, I’m sure he said it.” That the President apparently missed such a flashing alarm brings its own concern.
The President has spent months slamming China, which he accuses of knowingly exporting the virus to the US to harm the American economy after he earlier showered Beijing with praise for its handling of the situation. But he makes clear in the conversation on February 7 that he understood the severity of the virus — and much of his information seems to have been coming from a conversation the day before with none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The President’s refusal to inform his nation of a building threat and instinct to keep comparing the disease to the flu as late as the end of March — when he knew it was a lie — show he flunked his date with destiny.
Instead of true leadership, Trump consistently put his own political goals — including shielding the strong economy he needed to win reelection — ahead of the advice of his public health experts. He undermined science by pursuing discredited therapies like hydroxychloroquine. As recently as this past week, he mocked journalists and his election opponent, Joe Biden, who wear the masks that scientists say are critical to saving tens of thousands more from dying. Trump also urged sympathetic governors to open their states’ economies before the virus was under control, unleashing a Sun Belt outbreak that didn’t need to be so bad.
Trump contradicts his own White House’s defense
Not every country is a South Korea or New Zealand — which quickly understood the threat from the coronavirus and acted accordingly. There was plenty of failure in Europe, for instance, though most countries bought a summer respite from a mounting second wave.
And a more honest approach by Trump would not have saved every American life. But his deliberate deception and lack of seriousness at a grave national moment turned the US response into one of the world’s worst.
The failure laid bare by Woodward in the President’s own words is the ultimate repudiation of the “I alone can fix it” and “I know more about ISIS than the generals” school of leadership, in which Trump makes gut calls, ignores advice and puts politics above science.
Typically, Trump reacted to one of the most damaging moments of his presidency by following his usual playbook, trusting that disinformation and lies could drown out a book for which he gave taped interviews and was heard on television all day Wednesday admitting he had downplayed the pandemic. In a tweet, Trump lashed out at “the political hit job by rapidly fading Bob Woodward and his boring book.”
His defense that he did not want to create “panic” was taken up Wednesday by his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who said, “That’s what leaders do.”
Based on the facts and the history of the presidency, that is an absurd argument. Trump has hardly been the kind of president who has prioritized fostering a sense of national calm. Panic is best avoided not by ignoring a crisis but by charting the kind of national plan and effort that Trump has still yet to invoke six months into the Covid-19 pandemic.
A common characteristic of many of the inside-the-West-Wing exposes about Trump — including the recent Atlantic article that had the President mocking war dead, a charge he denies, is that they simply confirm with fact and anecdote the deficiencies evident in Trump’s own public behavior.
The White House has spent months denying that Trump downplayed the pandemic — only for the President to confirm it on a Woodward tape.
Even on Wednesday, McEnany scolded journalists for pointing that out — only for the President to immediately contradict her.
“The President never downplayed the virus,” McEnany said. Asked at a subsequent appearance whether he had in fact downplayed the virus, he replied: “Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that’s so.”
Tens of thousands could have been saved
Trump’s private knowledge about the virus puts his refusal and delays to put the tools needed to fight it into place — including massive testing (which is still lacking) and emergency social distancing — in an even worse light.
“Our entire response has been hampered by the mixed messaging that President Trump has had,” said Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner and a CNN medical analyst.
“And now we know that this mixed messaging is not just wrong, it’s deliberately misleading. And that’s extremely distressing,” Wen told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I think about all of the patients I’ve treated who have lost their lives or who have recovered but have long-term effects because of Covid-19.”
William Haseltine, one of America’s most respected health care professionals, who is now chairman and president of ACCESS Health International, a global health nonprofit, laid a devastating charge about the cost of Trump’s negligence.
“How many people could have been saved out of the 190,000 who have died? My guess is 180,000 of those,” he told Blitzer. “We have killed 180,000 of our fellow Americans because we have not been honest with the truth. We have not planned, and even today we’re ignoring the threat that lies ahead.”
Given the scale of the disaster and the proximity of November’s election, it might seem natural that the President’s failures as revealed in “Rage” will be punished with the end of his political career.
Biden was quick to highlight the latest evidence for the core argument of his campaign that Trump is unfit to be President.
“It’s disgusting,” the former vice president told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview. “We learned this on the day that 100 — it turned 190,000 Americans dead, and he knew this? … I truly don’t get it.”
Negligence, scandal and controversy have not always, however, translated into political consequences for Trump.
The torrents of misinformation that Trump has used to sustain himself are already flowing on conservative media and from the White House, and may help limit the political damage.
The President’s connection with his voters has never been based on an honest accounting of his performance as an executive. He has an almost supernatural tribal and cultural bond with his base that is unlikely to be shaken by even such a clear example of presidential laxity. Still, the latest controversy probably won’t help him win back defections from suburban voters and will bolster Biden heading into their first debate in three weeks.
However the political chips fall, Woodward’s account is the most authoritative judgment yet on Trump’s handling of a crisis that will define his term — and that the author described in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview airing Sunday as “a tragedy.”