The U.S. coronavirus death toll is at approximately 190,000. It is a staggering loss of life, one that surpasses the combined number of American deaths from World War I, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. And the virus is still far from under control, with another 218,000 Americans predicted to die from COVID-19 by January.
How many loved ones would still be with us now had the United States mobilized as soon as its leaders understood this dire viral threat? The nation is compelled to ask that after a new book details the shocking gap between what President Donald Trump knew about this pathogen and his early public pronouncements on it.
The book’s author is one of America’s best-known journalists, Bob Woodward. Along with Carl Bernstein, his reporting for The Washington Post led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The tome’s title is “Rage,” and while it won’t be released until Sept. 15, audio recordings have been released and excerpts have been published in the Post.
The account is damning. Instead of warning the American people and taking broad measures that could have saved tens of thousands of lives, Trump downplayed the virus publicly while privately relaying its danger to Woodward. In a taped conversation with Woodward in early February, Trump said he was briefed by top officials on Jan. 28 about the pathogen’s spread in China. Trump also explained how easily the virus spreads.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu. … This is deadly stuff.”
Publicly, Trump compared the virus to the flu, saying it was under control or that it would disappear. Although the Star Tribune Editorial Board published a Feb. 6 warning about the slow development of a COVID test, few others were sounding an alarm. At a Feb. 28 rally, Trump called the virus a “hoax.”
States and individual Americans were left on their own to understand the threat the virus posed, and valuable time was lost. It wasn’t until March 19 that California’s governor ordered a statewide lockdown. New York would follow suit the next day. Minnesota’s stay-at-home order was signed March 25.
Competent national leadership would have urged lockdowns much earlier, along with other vital measures such as securing testing supplies and developing a broad plan for testing. Earlier action also could have boosted supplies of personal protective gear for medical workers and put in place protective policies for senior care centers. The missed opportunities are countless, heartbreaking and infuriating.
Woodward wisely taped his interviews with Trump, so the shopworn “fake news” ploy won’t work here. Neither should another defense — that he didn’t want to cause a panic. Trump did little in the Jan. 28 briefing’s aftermath to contain the threat. In March, he admitted to Woodward that he had deliberately played down COVID’s danger.