President Donald Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized and defended, parsed through the prism of the grim toll the virus has exacted on this nation. The president continually has justified his actions even as the reality of what we were witnessing seemed to argue otherwise.
Now, the veneer of vindication to which he has been clinging is being stripped away and the truth is emerging. And it’s Trump’s own words that damn him.
What the president told journalist Bob Woodward, captured on audiotapes, reveals a stunning betrayal of public trust and a tragic failure of leadership. Trump knew very early on that the virus spreading in China was deadly and dangerous long before it exploded in the United States. Not only did he never convey that information to the people he swore an oath to protect, but he also downplayed the seriousness of what was happening. Nor did he prepare the nation for the calamity that was to come.
Trump clearly digested the warning he received Jan. 28 from National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien that the coronavirus would be the “biggest national security threat” he would face. He told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the virus was “deadly stuff,” that it was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu,” and that it was passed by breathing the air, making it “very tricky.”
But Trump told the public that COVID-19 was like the flu. Nearly three weeks after the conversation with Woodward, whose decision not to disclose Trump’s duplicity earlier is regrettable, the president said publicly on Feb. 26 that the number of U.S. cases would soon be “close to zero.” On Feb. 27, he said, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” The next day he called it a Democratic hoax. And between Feb. 10 and March 2, he held five rallies across the nation, thousands of people crammed into tight spaces at each stop.
Trump’s explanation that he wanted to avoid creating a panic rings hollow. There’s a difference between not wanting to instill fear and deliberately misleading people. To do so effectively takes leadership. And that takes honesty, a genuine understanding of the enormity of the trust the public has placed in you, and a willingness to put their interests first. It is not about obfuscating, misstating facts, or withholding information people need to take protect themselves and their families.
Even if you accept Trump’s position, you cannot excuse his failure to use what he knew to ramp up the nation’s testing capability, quickly procure adequate personal protective equipment, or promptly invoke the Defense Production Act to manufacture needed equipment and supplies. Those failures came at tremendous cost — 190,000 Americans dead so far, millions out of work, thousands of businesses shuttered forever, educations interrupted and lives upended.
When America needed the truth, Trump delivered fiction. And we all continue to pay the price.
— The editorial board