On February 10, Donald Trump claimed that COVID-19 would “go away in April with the heat.” Two weeks later on February 27, Trump famously declared there were only 15 cases in the United States—even though there were at least 60 known—and said, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” The next day he repeated these claims and added. “We have done an incredible job. We’re going to continue. It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” Trump continued to repeat these statements all through the next three months. In fact, Trump said the virus will simply “go away” at least 32 times by the start of August.
At the time, it seemed that Trump’s repeated lies might have been driven by sheer ignorance. Or by a kind of malignant incompetence. But, unbelievably, it was worse. Because as recordings made for an upcoming book by Bob Woodward have revealed, Trump was not ignorant of the threat posed by COVID-19. He was absolutely cognizant of the danger it posed. The decision to lie about it was a conscious decision made expressly for political purposes.
And now, after being confronted with these accusations, and his own voice in recordings, Trump isn’t bothering to pretend. He’s admitting that he lied to the American people about the nature and scope of the threat they faced.
As The Washington Post reports, Trump admitted on Wednesday that he lied to the American public. “I don’t want people to be frightened,” Trump said right after announcing a list of potential Supreme Court nominees that included Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. “I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”
Trump certainly did want to hold down panic. On March 6, he said, “I don’t think people are panicking. I said last night—we did an interview on Fox last night, a town hall. I think it was very good. And I said, ‘Calm. You have to be calm.’ It’ll go away.” On March 10, Trump hit the snooze alarm again, saying, “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
The trouble with these statements is … everything. Not only is Trump lying to the American people about a literal matter of life and death, there’s no way in which his words make matters better. Concern was the appropriate response. People needed to be worried. People needed to be informed about the true level of danger so that they could act to protect themselves, their families, and communities. But Trump didn’t just fail to give them accurate information, he gave them deliberately inaccurate information—disinformation that led directly to the deaths of 200,000 Americans and over 6 million illnesses.
When a building is on fire, it’s appropriate to provide information that leads people to the exits in an orderly fashion. To deny that there’s a problem, and tell everyone to just sit back down, is murder.
The more important tool in fighting COVID-19 and keeping Americans safe is not vaccine, or ventilators, or even masks. It’s information. Accurate information about what people should do to limit their risks, how they should behave if they believe they’re in danger, and what they can expect going forward is the most vital component, not just in a pandemic, but in any emergency. Trump denied Americans the most basic tool to arm themselves against a threat.
Republicans are now trying to sell the idea that “no one was taking COVID-19 seriously in February or March.” Which is completely, absolutely a lie on top of all the other lies.
This is Joe Biden on January 27.
“The outbreak of a new coronavirus, which has already infected more than 2,700 people and killed over 80 in China, will get worse before it gets better. Cases have been confirmed in a dozen countries, with at least five in the United States. There will likely be more.”
This is Kamala Harris on February 12.
“The American people also, Mr. Chairman, need to hear from the officials who are currently responsible for addressing this and we need a public hearing with current government officials as soon possible. It is critical to my state of California. I have spoken with some of the current officials and I asked them why they are not here today. They did not have a good response for why they are not. In fact, they went on to say – well we have to take time to prepare talking points. The American people deserve them to be here this morning.”
By March 12, as Trump was still saying “stay calm,” and with 22 recitations of “it will go away” still ahead, Joe Biden published a plan for dealing with the pandemic. That plan included creating a national testing system, using emergency powers to manufacture more tests, including home tests, and following guidance from Kamala Harris to address racial inequities in dealing with COVID-19.
Democrats, and scientists, and the World Health Organization, and experts across the planet were all trying to warn people that the threat from COVID-19 was serious.
But Donald Trump kept saying “it will go away.” He kept refusing to provide people with the simple measures they could take to protect themselves, or give people the truth about what was ahead. He kept telling people to go back to their seats, even as the flames burned higher.