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Truth and consequences

President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Deborah Birx,

President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Thursday. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

Truth is a precious thing, important in peacetime, crucial in war.

And America is at war. The foe is the new coronavirus, and our ability to fight back against it — and, critically, to prepare for the next battle against the next infectious disease — has been and will continue to be hampered severely by President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to handle the truth. Just as troubling is his refusal to take responsibility for his actions if something goes wrong.

The president must answer for the damage to the nation being done by his serial assault on truth and his deflection of accountability. He is mangling, distorting and trying to reshape reality. And it’s happening in real time and in plain sight.

Trying to rewrite history to buff his image is a political calculation for Trump; whether for better or worse will be seen in November. But it also has consequences for the recovery effort and for our ability to learn what went wrong in the effort to stop the spread of the virus. How can we analyze that, change our response procedures, and prepare ourselves better with supplies, tests and medicines to ensure this havoc never happens again when we can’t even agree on the facts about what’s happened so far? If everything Trump has done is “perfect,” what’s to be learned? If we don’t learn, we’re doomed to go down this road again. That could be catastrophic.

The evidence

The list of provocations is long.

On Feb. 27, Trump said of the virus, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” That was not true. He said often the virus was like the flu and that it was completely under control, as late as March 15 saying “it’s something we have tremendous control over.” Neither was true.

When Democrats criticized him and his administration for being unprepared and underplaying the virus’ threat, Trump dismissed the critiques on Feb. 28, saying, “And this is their new hoax.” It was not.

He has said repeatedly that anyone who needs a test for the virus can get one; that still isn’t true. He has said he inherited “obsolete tests” from the Obama administration; the virus is new, so no tests existed anywhere.

He has said repeatedly that there are enough ventilators and personal protective equipment, when that was not the case. He has routinely misstated the scope of his travel restrictions on China and his use of the Defense Production Act to order more medical and safety equipment. He mistakenly said he has the sole power to reopen the economy in individual states. He said various government stimulus programs have been rolled out smoothly, when they have been beset by problems.

And on March 17, he said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” which is preposterous.

Trump bashes the media when it tells truths he cannot accept. His media partners echo him in creating this alternate universe. He amplifies it on social media, even using the official White House account to send out false or misleading information to rewrite history with a partisan lens.

All of this exacts a tremendous cost.

What the nation deserves

America desperately needs a leader now but leadership depends on integrity, which comes from telling the truth. People won’t listen to you or do what you ask of them if they don’t believe in you, if they don’t trust you. Our riven nation is split on this, too. An average of polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight shows that 49% of the nation disapproves of Trump’s response to the virus, while 47.4% approves. Those numbers stagnate our usual politics, but they can be lethal to the unified action needed for an effective pandemic response.

Good leadership also requires acknowledging mistakes. When you refuse to do that, you compound one lie with another. So far, Trump has blamed Congress, Democrats, governors, Barack Obama, the World Health Organization and China for the coronavirus crisis in an attempt to deflect from his own shortcomings. COVID-19 would have been tough for any president to deal with, but it has exposed many of Trump’s shortcomings — his loose management style, his dysfunctional inner circle, his lack of respect for science, his failure to fill critical positions with qualified people, his unbridled ego, and his antipathy to telling the truth. 

Lies leave people distrustful of government and of accurate information, and can lead to rash acts like ongoing protests against stay-at-home orders in Michigan and elsewhere. Trump’s vacillations encouraged this behavior. Then on Friday, he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and two other states, backing political supporters against Democrat governors and in apparent defiance of the guidelines for returning to normal that he unveiled the day before.

Attempts to rewrite or blur the history of what happens make it impossible to tackle big issues the virus has raised. We can’t return to normal yet, as this pandemic and the recession it’s causing shake the assumptions of our society.

Americans see the death toll. They see the bodies piled into refrigerated trucks. They see stressed nurses and doctors lacking equipment to keep them safe. They see millions of other Americans who cannot get tested. They know what’s real and what’s not.

The truth can hurt. It can be inconvenient. It can be messy and uncomfortable. But it is essential to good governance and real leadership, and it is the only way forward. Truth cannot be denied.

— The editorial board