In almost every instance, Donald Trump presents a choice: You can believe he’s acting out of ignorance or you can believe he’s acting out of malice. But in most cases, this is a false choice. He’s acting out of both.
This is absolutely the situation when it comes to Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. From the beginning, Trump has insisted that it would go away “like magic,” or fade in the summer heat, or go down to zero “at the appropriate time.” That hasn’t changed. In an interview on Tuesday, Trump insisted that America is in “a good place.” It’s not. He said that America has the lowest rate of deaths in the world. It doesn’t. He claimed that everything would be fine in a few months. It won’t. There’s more to it than just Trump brushing off concerns to clear the way for the golf trip that begins on Friday. There’s more than a deliberate White House effort to reach a point where Americans no longer even notice that death is all around them. Trump realizes that he can’t win a campaign that’s focused on how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he believes he can still be king of the ashes.
From the very beginning, Trump’s “down to zero” and “magically go away” statements weren’t simply a refusal to face facts. They were insights into the very obvious fact that Trump had done absolutely nothing to prepare for steering the nation through any crisis, and that everything was particularly broken when it came to addressing a pandemic.
The Global Health Security and Biodefense unit was created by Barack Obama specifically to address the looming threat of global pandemic. It was headed by former Navy rear admiral R. Timothy Ziemer, a man with decades of experience in both disaster planning and public health. In 2018, Trump dismantled the entire team, and shifted Ziemer to a lower post at USAID. Even there, Ziemer was theoretically in charge of disaster response, but he was completely sidelined from addressing COVID-19. He retired in May, on a day when over 2,500 Americans died from precisely the kind of disaster his vanished team had been designed to thwart.
Why Trump dissolved the unit mystified those involved. Its removal slowed the national response, and the dismissal of experts, or assignment to other posts, meant that the U. S. response was slow at every point, and inadequate in every way. The destruction of the response team is particularly mysterious in light of the fact that numerous exercises and simulations right up until just weeks before the pandemic began were marked by failures. That 2019 simulation included a respiratory virus that originated in China, spread to the United States, and became a global pandemic. The findings of Operation Crimson Contagion specifically highlighted the lack of a coordinated response leading to inconsistent messaging, poor coordination with states, and confusion over leadership. Specifically, the supply chain for protective gear was insufficient and states weren’t able to get supplies from the federal government “due to a lack of standardized, well-understood, and properly executed resource request processes.”
Rather than address these issues, the Trump White House set out to both duplicate and expand on every failing of the Crimson Contagion study. Information wasn’t just inconsistent, it was completely inaccurate, with false statements from Trump, Mike Pence, and others on the availability of testing and the extent of contagion. Supplies weren’t just hard to locate, they were handed out in an arbitrary and capricious manner, with states forced into a competition for White House attention, Trump openly threatening to cut off supplies to governors who didn’t demonstrate their personal loyalty. It seems clear that states like Florida got more supplies than they required, while others, like Michigan, were deliberately shorted despite overwhelming need.
But Trump did more than ignore the findings of Crimson Contagion and past exercises. As he stated explicitly in a Fox News interview on Tuesday “I sort of didn’t listen to my experts” when it came to how to handle the looming disaster. Not only did Trump fail to take the steps that might have blunted the initial impact through a coordinated system of national testing, case tracing, and isolation, he was critical of governors who moved to protect their citizens. Rather than create a national system of lockdowns with clear standards for placing and removing restrictions, Trump insisted that governors open up, tweeting not just threats about refusing to distribute federal funds, but encouragement for gun-waving followers to invade state capitals.
Trump first took over the daily appearances of the COVID-19 task force and used them to spread doubt and misinformation. Then he simply discarded the whole structure. When that task force appeared for a single briefing last week, it was the first time it had been seen in public in more than two months.
Meanwhile, Trump has moved on to insisting that schools must reopen, regardless of the clear danger. He’s again leveraging that threat against governors and local officials, as well using it as a means to invoke still more authority when it comes to immigration. Trump’s actions place schools at every level in an impossible crisis, one in which they cannot safely educate their students, and cannot withstand the fiscal pressure being applied.
It took until March 29 for the United States to exceed the number of deaths that had occurred on 9/11. But since then, America has averaged more than a 9/11 every three days—45 9/11s and counting.
But rather than moving to address this still unfolding tragedy, Trump has done everything he can to heap crisis on top of crisis. He’s deliberately exacerbating racial tensions and feeding white nationalism through his actions to promote Confederate memorials and the symbolism of Manifest Destiny. He’s using the trillions of dollars in emergency funding as a means to enrich his allies, while refusing calls to assist individuals or relieve the burden on states. He’s blocking efforts to prevent a mass flood of evictions and foreclosures that have built up under levels of unemployment not seen since the end of the Great Depression. He’s engaged in court actions designed to strip away Obamacare at the moment when more people than ever are relying on their healthcare plans. And he’s pressing schools into a no-win position where they can neither educate students, or protect families, or pay their bills. And, oh yeah, Trump is ignoring Russia paying for the murder of American soldiers and still playing footsie with Vladimir Putin.
In the past, Trump’s response to scandal has often been to throw another scandal at it. Whether it was his campaign’s over 100 contacts with Russian officials, or his own bribes to porn stars, Trump has redefined the “Gish Gallop” for a new age, raising the level of outrage while proving that he can always find a new sub-basement below his previous low point.
But now Trump isn’t just dealing with his failings in the bedroom or boardroom, he’s serving up national disasters. The scale of everything is larger. The cost is unbelievable. But Trump’s tactics are the same—pile it on. Add calamity, to crisis, to disaster, to catastrophe. Make things deliberately worse. Get the guns in the street. Put fear in the air. Create a blood-dimmed tide rising so fast that people are unable to see where one horror ends and another begins.
That’s the kind of situation where people might turn to anyone in search of a solution. Even the person who created the situation in the first place. And even if they don’t … there’s always that seven trillion dollars.
Trump could be ignorant. Trump could be evil. He can certainly be both.