On January 28 of this year, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told President Trump, “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
The conversation took place during a top-secret intelligence briefing at the White House, and the threat O’Brien spoke of was the coronavirus. This is according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.
Deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger, who was also in the Oval Office for the briefing, agreed with O’Brien’s assessment. He told the president that the imminent health emergency would be similar to the 1918 flu pandemic (which accounted for around 50 million deaths worldwide).
Ten days after the meeting, on February 7, Trump spoke to Woodward on the phone. In a recorded conversation (that’s now all over the Internet), the president conveyed a message that stood at stark odds with what he was saying publicly (and continued to say for weeks).
“It goes through the air,” the president told Woodward, referring to the virus. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Trump added that the virus was, in fact, at least five times more deadly than the flu. “This is deadly stuff,” he reemphasized.
What makes this revelation so curious is that over a month later, Trump was still publicly suggesting that COVID-19 was no worse than the common flu:
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
Personally, I had believed for some time that Trump’s downplaying of the nature of the health crisis had come from a position of denial. I figured he wasn’t quite on-board with what the experts were telling him, because his ego and political fortunes wouldn’t let him accept the situation for what it was. I also believed that Trump’s rejection of reality is what has been fueling his continued failure to promote responsible mitigation practices, like mask-wearing and not hosting huge, packed, political rallies.
But as Woodward’s reporting and recordings seem to reveal, Trump actually had a surprisingly good understanding of not only the virus, but also the impending crisis here in America. He just consciously, deceptively, and in my view — dangerously — downplayed it to the public.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Trump said it himself in another recorded conversation with Woodward 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.”
Also, in that exchange, Trump contradicted his long-pushed narrative about younger people not being susceptible to the virus: “Now it’s turning out it’s not just old people, Bob. But just today, and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people.”
Now, I’m actually pretty sympathetic to the notion of an American president not wanting to start a panic. Panic during a crisis isn’t helpful. And that’s the angle some prominent Trump defenders are already taking to defend the president’s decision to play it down:
“Played down?” As opposed to essentially telling everyone they’re going to die and fudging stats to stoke fear as most of legacy media has done? https://t.co/YBPjImNN02
— Dana Loesch (@DLoesch) September 9, 2020
But let’s try to keep some rational minds among us. One can convey a serious public health concern, as well as responsible measures for people to take, without “telling everyone they’re going to die.” One can put forth a calm, important message without causing a national panic.
At least, a leader can… if he wants to, and if he thinks it’s important.
Trump failed in that leadership role. He claimed the virus was “totally under control.” He said he “pretty much shut it down,” and later suggested that it would “go away in April with the heat.” He claimed that the number of infected people was “going very substantially down” at a time when it was growing exponentially. He said it was going to disappear “like a miracle.” He promised a vaccine was right around the corner when it clearly wasn’t. He said coronavirus tests were available to anyone who wanted one, when that wasn’t the case at all. He continued to compare it to the common flu. He pushed miracle drugs that didn’t hold up to the science. He belittled mask-wearing, and blew off social distancing at his political events.
And before anyone brings up the Dr. Fauci interview from Wednesday (as many Trump defenders currently are), where the good doctor (who always tries so hard to be apolitical) told Fox News’s John Roberts that he didn’t think Trump was misleading the public, it’s important to keep in mind that Fauci was referring specifically to the task-force press briefings. At those briefings (which didn’t start until mid-March), Trump pretty much towed the line of the experts he shared the stage with. And whenever he strayed, they reeled him back in.
It was at separate events and meetings with the press, and on social media, that Trump has spread the bulk of his coronavirus untruths.
To state the obvious, COVID-19 was going to hit our country pretty hard, regardless of who was sitting in the Oval Office. But imagine how much needless confusion and additional spread of the virus (including deaths) could have been prevented if Trump had talked to America similarly to how he talked to Bob Woodward in that early-February phone call.
In that call, he spoke quite rationally about the virus being highly contagious, airborne, and significantly more dangerous than the flu. He knew the crisis was headed our way, and that it amounted to the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency, the likes of what the world hadn’t seen since 1918.
But instead of preparing Americans for it, Trump stoked indifference and ignorance, assuring public and institutional flat-footedness. Through Twitter and elsewhere, he energized (and continues to energize) the conspiracy crowd into scoffing at the virus, and vilifying “traitorous” epidemiologists and the science they put forth. Heck, he even helped turn mask-wearing into one of the stupidest battles in the history of the culture war.
During a crucial time in this country’s history, when Americans desperately needed trust in, and guidance from, their elected leaders, the country’s most powerful leader made matters needlessly worse. Plenty of others did as well, but Trump is our nation’s top executive. He should be held to a higher bar. Sadly, even as we approach the grim milestone of 200,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, I don’t think he will.