President Donald Trump’s advisers warned him as early as late January that the coronavirus pandemic, then taking root in China, could cost countless lives in America.
Despite this stark warning, revealed by Bob Woodward in his new book Rage and first reported by CNN, Trump downplayed the pandemic—the exact opposite of what any responsible leader should do, experts told The Daily Beast.
As a result, tens of thousands of Americans have died unnecessarily, the same experts said. “This will be case study for decades to come in schools of health for how things can go wrong,” Anthony Alberg, a University of South Carolina epidemiologist, told The Daily Beast.
“He has blood on his hands,” added Irwin Redlener, the founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and a former adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Exactly what Trump understood about SARS-CoV-2, and when, has been the subject of intensive debate since the pathogen first appeared in Wuhan, China, back in December. Some observers assumed Trump truly didn’t understand how dangerous the virus was.
As recently as May, Trump claimed that the World Health Organization engaged in a “cover-up” that deceived his administration about the severity of the pandemic. In fact, Robert O'Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told the president the coronavirus could be the “biggest national security threat” of Trump’s administration, according to Woodward.
O'Brien's deputy, Matt Pottinger, explained that the virus could mirror the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide.
At the same time, O’Brien told the public that the virus represented “a low risk, we think, in the U.S.” Trump did take action in the days following O’Brien and Pottinger’s briefing, imposing some limits on travel from China to the United States. But that measure was pitifully inadequate—and totally out of step not only with expert advice, but also with the response of other industrialized countries to the threat of the pandemic.
While countries such as Germany, Taiwan and South Korea banned foreign travelers; mandated social distancing and masks; launched nationwide testing efforts; quarantined infected patients and traced their contact with other people, the U.S. government left public health policies to the states—while at the same time Trump actively discouraged social distancing and mask-wearing and publicly attacked public health experts in his own administration.
Consider the consequences. Germany has lost 9,400 people to the coronavirus out of a population of 83 million. South Korea, a country of 52 million, has had fewer than 400 COVID fatalities. Taiwan has lost seven people out of 24 million.
By contrast, the United States, with a population of 328 million, so far has suffered more than 190,000 COVID deaths. And the U.S. death rate remains high eight months after the virus reached American shores.
The blame lies with Trump, Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global health expert, told The Daily Beast. “It’s very clear what he should have done,” Gostin said. “He should have ramped up, immediately, our public health infrastructure with a national plan, which would have included surge capacity in hospitals for personal-protective equipment and ventilators.”
“He should’ve, at the time, made sure that we had the capacity for massive testing, contact-tracing and isolation or quarantine,” continued Gostin, who once served as an adviser to Hillary Clinton during her ill-fated health care push. “And he should have been prepared, if necessary, to give guidance to the states on a national lockdown to keep the outbreak under control. And he should have surrounded himself with reliable, trusted public health experts.”
“He did none of that,” Gostin said.
If Trump had listened to his advisers and pursued sound public health policies, he would have saved tens of thousands of lives, Redlener told The Daily Beast.
“If we had the leadership we needed, I’m pretty certain we would have been under 100,000 fatalities—and probably under 50,000 if we had been aggressive from the beginning,” Redlener said.
Redlener didn’t just pull that number out of thin air. In a May study, Redlener’s Columbia University colleague Jeffrey Shaman and co-authors simulated aggressive, coordinated, “counterfactual” U.S. responses to the pandemic. They asked what might have happened if Trump had followed expert advice and locked the country down no later than early March.
In that case, 35,000 American lives would have been saved through early May, Shaman and his team found.
Redlener extended the same calculation through September. “We had probably 150,000 potentially unavoidable fatalities because of the incompetence of Donald Trump,” he said.
The pandemic didn’t have to be so bad. Other countries with better leaders avoided the worst outcomes. America has suffered among the worst possible outcomes because, in Trump, America has a weak, dishonest leader, Redlener said. “He didn’t care, he didn’t read, he didn’t listen to people.”
“This is criminal negligence,” Redlener said of Trump. “If he didn’t have this thing called ‘sovereign immunity,’ I would see this as basis for being charged with criminal negligence.”
But Trump does benefit from sovereign immunity, the legal principle shielding elected leaders from certain kinds of prosecution stemming from actions they take in pursuit of official duties.
That means justice should be electoral, not legal, Redlener said. “I hope the jury will deliberate on this on Nov. 3.”