Much ink has been spilled to more than amply demonstrate that, when it came to the threat of the novel coronavirus, the Trump administration ignored its own intelligence, its own CDC, and the urgent warnings of the medical community, from as early as January and well into February of this year. New York University professor Ryan Goodman and NYU student Danielle Schulkin conclude, in an op-ed in the The New York Times, that the administration’s actions went well beyond mere “negligence” and trying to “wish” the pandemic away. Rather, for a five-day period in late February and early March, Donald Trump and his team of “very best people” engaged in a deliberate and malicious cover-up of the seriousness of COVID-19—for the sole purpose of intentionally misleading the American people.
As accounts of what was actually known to Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, as well as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow begin to take shape amid the administration’s fuzzy web of denials and deflections, an unmistakable picture of calculated malfeasance has emerged.
They knew it was serious, and they knew it would or could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. But they continued to lie. Goodman and Schulkin don’t accept that such ineptitude was simply a case of “flat-footedness” or simply “time lost.” In reality, they write, “Over the last five days of February, President Trump and senior officials did something more sinister: They engaged in a cover-up.”
Goodman and Schulkin conclude that the public statement of Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s authority on respiratory diseases, made on Tuesday, Feb. 25, is the key to unlocking the subsequent cover-up, because it was the actual catalyst of the administration’s response.
“As we’ve seen from recent countries with community spread, when it has hit those countries, it has moved quite rapidly. We want to make sure the American public is prepared,” Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters.
“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” she said.
“Disruption to everyday life might be severe,” Messonnier said, adding that she talked to her children about the issue Tuesday morning. “While I didn’t think they were at risk right now, we as a family ought to be preparing for significant disruption to our lives.”
We now know that there is absolutely no doubt that, when she made that statement, the administration was well aware of the seriousness of the pandemic and the threat it represented to Americans, as Goodman and Schulkin note.
At the time, senior officials knew the coronavirus was an extreme threat to Americans. Thanks to information streaming in from U.S. intelligence agencies for months, officials reportedly believed that a “cataclysmic” disease could infect 100 million Americans and discussed lockdown plans. The warnings were given to Mr. Trump in his daily brief by the intelligence community; in calls from Alex Azar, the secretary of health; and in memos from his economic adviser Peter Navarro.
In fact, on the very same day in February, the U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence raised its warning to WATCHCON 1 at all levels inside the U.S. government, indicating that the pandemic was now considered a full-bore threat.
What did the administration do in response to Dr. Messonnier’s very public, very embarrassing warning? They lied, intentionally and knowingly. Trump’s rationale? He didn’t want to “upset” the stock market. A full-blown pandemic was likely to sink the only thing holding his reelection chances above the water line. He decided instead to concoct a panoply of phony assurances, and his collaborators, Kudlow, Esper and Azar, were only too happy to oblige. That very afternoon, just hours after Messonnier’s statement, Azar held a press conference, stating that “Thanks to the president and this team’s aggressive containment efforts,” the novel coronavirus “is contained.”
On that same Tuesday afternoon, Kudlow appeared on CNBC, and said the virus was “contained.”
The next day, Mark Esper told U.S. military commanders to provide him with advance notice of any measures they might be taking that might “run afoul” of the president’s messaging, indicating, as presented in a New York Times report, that he was well aware of the WATCHCON 1 status of the pandemic, and the fact that it contradicted the administration’s contrived “happy talk.”
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans took solace in these deliberate lies that were broadcast to the country. On that same Wednesday, Trump himself came out with his infamous suggestion that only “15” Americans were likely to catch the virus.
As Goodman and Schulkin point out, Trump and Azar continued to spew these lies—Trump at his political rallies, and Azar in public appearances—over the next few days. Five days of lies, in total.
In effect, for five days, the president along with some of his closest senior officials disseminated an egregiously false message to Americans. The messaging would continue well beyond those days until the stark images of refrigerated morgue trucks and spiked lines on colored graphs showed the escalating numbers of cases and dead.
Understanding this playbook is not only important in its own terms. It goes to the heart of whether Americans can trust this administration in the months ahead when they must make life-or-death decisions about how to protect their health and when to reboot the economy.
Trump’s COVID-19 failure was not simple dysfunction, not simple negligence, but an intended, malicious cover-up of the actual facts, all to create a false sense of assurance in the American people while the administration grappled to find an acceptable political escape—a way to salvage the impending disaster from the electoral fallout that was sure to follow for Trump.
Ultimately, of course, there was no escape, and here we are: facing an administration that has already lied to us, over and over again, and can’t stop, won’t stop, and didn’t stop, even when the truth could have made the difference between life and death.