The most heartbreaking exchange between Donald Trump and Bob Woodward came on March 19, when the president dramatically informed the reporter that the virus could infect young people after all. If Trump had acted on that inside info, instead of just using it to impress Woodward, 100 children might be alive today, going to school, albeit on Zoom.
But he kept that, and so much more, between him and Woodward, an associate editor at the hated Washington Post who became famous for breaking the Watergate scandal. Earlier, on Feb. 26, the president confided to Woodward that if you just “breathed the air” you could contract a virus five times deadlier than the flu. Two days later, Trump told the rest of us the opposite, that 15 cases of the virus, not a bit worse than the “strenuous flu,” were “soooo under control” they would soon fall to zero. Should anyone get the sniffles, not to worry. Take two aspirin and call your governor in the morning.
The irony is that in attempting to minimize the danger from a strenuous virus to keep the Dow Jones high, unemployment low, bars full, and his re-election inevitable, Trump did the opposite, making life tragically worse for the country and more politically dire for himself. Knowing what he knew and when he knew it prompts a hundred haunting what ifs:
What if he’d mobilized his pandemic experts instead of abandoning the states to come up with 50 ways to cope; if only he’d closed the country sooner and opened it much later, sped up testing instead of slowing it, not held packed rallies like it was 2016, ordered the country to wear masks instead of ridiculing people who did? If Trump had taken responsibility and authorized a national plan, as any other president would have, as every world leader worthy of the title did, half the dead might be alive. More important to him, his beautiful economy would be back, and his re-election more likely.
Instead, Trump pulled off a cover-up far worse than Nixon’s—after all, no one died during Watergate—and unleashed a long national nightmare that is far from over. Lately he’s taken to vastly overreaching, if not lying, about a vaccine, our best hope of cutting estimates that a quarter million will be dead by year’s end.
Trump dangled an October Surprise again on Labor Day: “We’re going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I’m talking about.” We do, as do Big Pharma executives. Used to being blamed for raising the cost of drugs, broadcasting unceasing ads for their expensive products featuring customers frolicking in the pink of health, nine are coming to the rescue. They’re promising no vaccine to market before its time, no more quack cures like hydroxychloroquine and bleach, and that they will follow the science not the president’s whims. To that end, on Wednesday, AstraZeneca threw a wrench in Trump’s aspirational deadline when it wisely halted its Phase 3 trial until it could ascertain why one participant had fallen seriously ill.
It’s an upside-down world when we have to rely on drug executives over the president. The credibility it takes to convince hundreds of millions of people to ingest a small dose of toxin is hard to gain but easy to lose. On COVID, Trump has none left. He removed a veteran doctor in charge of vaccine development, wrote a few checks, probably with his name on them, branded the effort Operation Warp Speed, put in charge a friendly member of the board of vaccine-maker Moderna, now under investigation for selling stock upon his appointment, and jawboned a vaccine to become available in record time. What Trump got for all this, according to a poll, from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, was less than half of Americans surveyed saying they would get vaccinated against COVID-19 if a vaccine was available before November. Trump’s managed to create the largest coalition of anti-vaxxers ever.
None of this would be happening if Trump, with no elected Republican restraining him, hadn’t acquired the powers of a king. This week he ordered attorney general William Barr to have the U.S. Department of Justice defend him against a lawsuit growing out of an alleged sexual assault in a Bergdorf-Goodman dressing room in 1996 when a presidential campaign was something he toyed with whenever he wanted a mention on Page Six. Providing personal legal services is far to go even for Barr, but not as deadly evil as when Trump pressures his top health-care experts to give in to his whims. Trump oozes almost as much contempt for doctors in public service, who settle for government salaries and anonymity, as he does for soldiers fallen in defense of our country. Chumps and losers all.
He’s repeatedly pressured Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Stephen Hahn to tacitly agree with him, from hydroxychloroquine to bleach. Two weeks ago, Hahn had to take back his latest cave-in, endorsing convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19, beloved by Trump, before it had passed muster with his agency. The Kaiser poll found respect for the country’s top doctors dropping amid all the conflicting messages out there. Aware of his sinking credibility, and after saying he would fast-track a vaccine last week, on Thursday Hahn took the extraordinary step of announcing he has “no intention” of overruling career scientists at the agency on the vaccine even though he has the authority to do so.
The fastest vaccine to go through all the regulatory hoops was for the mumps in 1967, and it took four years. In 1984, the Reagan administration announced a government effort to develop one for AIDs that was abandoned 15 years later when it worked on only 31 percent of volunteers. The public temporarily lost trust in the hugely successful Sabin polio vaccine in the1950s after five children died and 51 were paralyzed from 40,000 doses containing a live, not an inactive, virus. In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford, without an ulterior motive, raced to develop a vaccine for a swine flu pandemic. He was widely criticized when swine turned out to be relatively mild, and the side effect relatively severe—450 people came down with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
It’s a blow to have your worst suspicions confirmed. Because Trump thought he could charm a reporter into writing a good book about him, we now know what Trump knew and when he knew it. If that knowledge doesn’t break your heart, you deserve Trump as your president. If it destroys you,Trump’s unforgivable inaction forces you to make a Hobbesian choice: to either risk infection by voting in person or place your faith in a mail-in ballot that will get lost in the mail if Trump, with the help of his embattled postmaster general, has his way.
There could be yet more tragedy if Trump’s re-elected. He will inevitably lose all interest in a vaccine since there will no longer be anything in it for him, and continuing to push it would cut into his TV and golf time. If Woodward has the stomach to lure Trump into trying again to win over the press he pretends to hate, he could have a sequel to Fear, his first volume in 2018, and Rage, his second that comes out this month. There will sadly be fewer people alive in 2021 to read it. I’ll promise to pre-order, but only if he calls it Disgust.