If there’s anything that Donald Trump does with aplomb, it’s tossing around blame. After making it clear once again that “I don’t take responsibility at all” is his personal motto, Trump has been on a quest to find just the right scapegoat for his lack of planning, lack of execution, and lack of follow-through in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump has tried blaming the World Health Organization. He’s made repeated attempts to pin his own failings on China. He’s made multiple runs at finding a way to blame President Obama. Still, it’s hard to have enough scapegoats when Americans are still dying by the thousands. So Trump is dragging a fresh sacrifice toward the altar in the form of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Administration officials and Republicans in Congress are eager to get started with this BBQ, but there’s a lot more to roasting the CDC for its failings than just talking about bad tests and bad advice. Republicans are set to use this latest scapegoat to make the most incredible pivot possible—they’re going to claim the real death total is much lower than the numbers being reported on the news.
There are plenty of reasons to conduct an investigation of the CDC’s response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. From the sluggish, fumbled effort to produce tests to decidedly mixed messages expressed to the public, there’s a good deal to be examined. CDC Director Robert Redfield has been a loyal Trump supporter, always there to agree when Trump claimed extraordinary medical knowledge, and never contradicting Trump’s misinformation and mangled statements. But that’s not what the sudden desire to drag the CDC over the coals is really about.
From the beginning of the epidemic within the United States, it’s been clear that COVID-19 deaths have been badly underreported. Not only have subsequent autopsies found cases in which people died from COVID-19 at a time when it wasn’t recognized as circulating in the population; the deaths of people at home, as well as at facilities like nursing homes and prisons, have been left off the books in numerous states. There are also situations like the one in Florida, where extraordinary steps have been taken to prevent all deaths from being properly recorded.
But for as long as cases have actually been undercounted, right-wing media has been spreading the myth that they are overcounted. Fox News in particular has repeatedly claimed that people who have died from almost any cause have been tossed into the COVID-19 totals. The pretense that this is already happening has ranged from outraged commentary to “jokes” about Black people shot by the police being counted as COVID-19 deaths.
Now, as Politico reports, Trump’s top aides “have seriously discussed launching an in-depth evaluation” of the CDC, not just over the problems with tests and other steps the agency took in fighting the pandemic, but to conduct an “audit” that would involve going through the deaths recorded in each state to “tally only the Americans who died directly of Covid-19 rather than other factors.” This is a transparent effort to reduce the count by blaming deaths on other factors—much like the original autopsy results of George Floyd blamed his death on heart failure.
If this “audit” of state death tolls goes forward, it will be a clear attempt to feed into the narrative that’s been nourished in the right-wing media from the outset. As for Trump’s October surprise: We don’t need a vaccine, because it turns out 122,000 people just fell down some stairs.