Continued from: Was COVID-19 born in the United States? (part 6)
Two waves of outrage greeted the news on 9 September of Bob Woodward’s book: Rage.
The first was President Trump’s disclosure to Woodward that he knew as early as February – even as he was dismissing COVID-19 publicly – that the looming pandemic was far deadlier than the flu. And the second was that Woodward, long associated with The Washington Post, did not reveal this to the public sooner.
The fact that this second outrage mostly circulated among journalists talking to one another made it no less furious. If the famous Watergate reporter knew that President Trump was lying to the public about a matter of life and death, why did he not reveal it immediately?
Woodward is hardly the first journalist to save rare information for a book. But “is this traditional practice still ethical?” wondered David Boardman, dean of the Temple University school of journalism and a former long-time editor of The Seattle Times.
Other critics were less circumspect: “This is really troubling. As journalists we’re supposed to work in the public interest. I think there’s been a failure here,” wrote Scott Nover, a platforms reporter for the industry journal Adweek.
These interviews about Covid-19 were done in February and March. Why are we learning about it in a book published in September? Isn't there a journalistic imperative to publish this information in a timely manner… especially during a pandemic? https://t.co/3dFG6WH6UM
— Scott Nover (@ScottNover) September 9, 2020
In fairness, it was not just journalists raising concerns. One could have argued that Woodward’s revelation could have been helpful in the spring, both explaining the seriousness of the disease to the public, showing the Trump Administration’s bungled and inept response, and pushing President Trump to do more. The point is valid – and far from new; it comes up almost every time a journalist writes a book which contains worthy information, especially about matters of national security or public well-being: So why was he public reading about this only now?
Not long before, The New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt was criticised for withholding some juicy revelations for his book about the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia and the Robert S. Mueller III investigation. (Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President, Random House, New York, 2020).
“It is not immediately entirely clear why these reports, many dating back as far as three years, made it into the pages of Schmidt’s book rather than the subscription-based newspaper that employs him,” wrote Roger Sollenberger, a staff writer at Salon. (NYT reporter’s new book makes explosive Russia, Mueller claims – that Times didn’t report, 31.08.2020).
Woodward explained in his defence that he did not have any signed agreement or formal embargo arrangement with President Trump to hold back their conversations until the book published. “I told him it was for the book. And, as far as promising not to publish in real time, or signing such an agreement, he had no commitment of that kind. Woodward said that his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.” Further, Woodward thought that there were at least two problems with what he heard from President Trump in February which kept him from putting it in the newspaper at the time: 1) he did not know what the source of President Trump’s information was. It was not until months later, in May actually, that he learned it came from a high-level intelligence briefing in January. What President Trump had told Woodward in February seemed hard to make sense of. There was no panic over the virus; even toward the final days of January. In fact, Dr. Fauci was publicly assuring Americans that there was no need to change their daily habits; 2) Woodward said: “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.”
President Trump spoke with Woodward on more than a dozen occasions, and in some cases, “he started calling me at night,” said Woodward. It took months to do the reporting which put it all in context.
Still, why not then write such a story later in the spring, once it was clear that the virus was extraordinarily destructive and that President Trump’s early downplaying had almost certainly cost lives? To that Woodward would say that he believes his highest purpose was not to write daily stories but to give his readers ‘the big picture’, one which may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.
Woodward saw his effort as that of delivering in book form “the best obtainable version of the truth,” not to rush individual revelations into publication. He was working with a particular deadline in mind, so that people could read, absorb and make their judgments well before 3 November 2020: “election day.” (M. Sullivan, Should Bob Woodward have reported Trump’s virus revelations sooner? Here’s how he defends his decision, The Washington Post, 10.09.2020).
Like presidents before him, Donald Trump said: “My first duty as President is to protect the American people.”
Yet when he was called upon to answer a threat to Americans so severe that it would just in three months leave more dead than were killed in the first world war, President Trump lied – deliberately. (R. Bort, Listen: Trump Admits on Tape He Deliberately Downplayed Covid-19, Rolling Stone, 09.09.2020). He downplayed the danger in the critical early stages of the fight – that the president would eventually describe as “our big war”, and he continued to lie as the death toll grew.
Tens of thousands of those deaths were preventable. But President Trump’s incompetence and lies made them inevitable.
This is the stark fact of Donald J. Trump’s infamy – a deliberate dereliction of duty which, in a time of declared war, would be identified as ‘treasonous.’
President Trump’s deliberate dereliction of duty led thousands to their deaths. The toll rose with each passing day, while the president was saying: “Be calm, do not panic!” The president would continue to lie. Americans would continue to die. (R. Cristián, WEF Admits COVID Was Around In Mid-2019 & It’s Admitted The Vaccine Will NOT Return Us To Normal, 16.11.2020).
This is not partisan over-reach. President Trump lied about COVID-19 and now more than 250,000 of his fellow Americans have died.
Sure, there were a handful of deaths and cases by early February when Trump told Woodward: “This is deadly stuff,” and “You just breathe the air.” the president explained, “and that’s how it’s passed.”
This is not like the other 20,000 plus falsehoods that President Trump has uttered since taking up residence in the White House. These lies about the virus were fatal.
On 24 February, Trump tweeted to the world: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”
On 27 February, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
On 10 March, he said: “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
So, how did President Trump say all this? Why did he not fulfil his duty to protect American citizens?
On 19 March, President Trump told Woodward: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Five days later, on 24 March, President Trump made the following statement on Fox News: “I brought some numbers here. We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off, I mean every year. Now when I heard the number – you know, we average 37,000 people a year. Can you believe that? And actually this year we’re having a bad flu season. But we lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off. We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies, say, “Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.” We have to get back to work.”
He played it down then in the early days when the nation had an opportunity to get its act together – and he continued to play it down. On 10 September, President Trump held a campaign rally in Michigan; again no masks, or hardly any – he certainly did not wear one, no social distancing; no warnings – nothing. (F. Gormlie, Trump Lied. 200,000 Americans Died,11.09.2020;Trump Lied. 200,000 Americans Died. – OB Rag, 11.09.2020).
And it is not that – since he acknowledged the severity of COVID-19 to Woodward – the president acted immediately and enacted national testing, national supplies, a national plan and response.
As John Nichols in The Nation summarised: a president who recognised his duty to protect the American people would have moved aggressively to address the threat, as leaders of other countries did. “Instead, Trump denied the danger, with his words and deeds, until the rates of infection and death surged to levels that Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged in early August had the United States experiencing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world.”
The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board had this view: “We suspect even his excuse for lying to the American people is less than truthful, and that it was the stock market he was really trying to keep calm. [Emphasis added] It’s been well-documented that in the early months of the pandemic, the president was frantic about how the disease would affect the economy. He raged about how the news media and the Democrats were exaggerating the dangers to scare the markets and make him look bad.” [Emphasis added]
A deliberate deception to enable his re-election – that’s what it was all about. He did not want to look bad. Trump was willing to have Americans die to help ensure he would be voted in again. His minions did not want the national security information about the threats to the 2020 election from the Kremlin; he did not want anyone to know about the threats from white supremacists; he did not want the COVID-19 numbers to go up.
And he felt untouchable. His enablers in the Senate would have assured that. Still, the irrefutable truth is, President Trump lied, and Americans died. (J. Nichols, Trump Lied, Americans Died, The Nation, 10.09.2020).
Details from Bob Woodward’s book on the president, including his intentional downplaying the risks of COVID-19 and lies about how it is transmitted, began to appear. Would any of such reports have long-term impact?
Woodward’s Rage was adding details and Trump’s own blithe recorded confirmation to a horrific story that Americans already knew: President Trump deliberately falsified and downplayed the epic severity of the pandemic. As Jennifer Szalai wrote in her Didion-worthy dissection of Rage in the Times, the book’s portrait of Trump would be “immediately recognizable to anyone paying even the minimal amount of attention.” (In Bob Woodward’s ‘Rage,’ a Reporter and a President From Different Universes, The New York Times, 09.09.2020).
In a blow-by-blow account (E. Lipton, D. E. Sanger, M. Haberman, M. D. Shear, M. Mazzetti and J. E. Barnes, He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus, The New York Times, 11.09.2020), for instance, the Times reported that “throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus,” both “top White House advisers” and experts in Cabinet departments and intelligence agencies were telling him the lethal facts and sounding constant alarms.
That is why by a later date President Trump’s indifference to matters of life and death had long since been baked into most voters’ verdicts on such a president, including his own voters. Even as the Woodward revelations started to pour out, President Trump was brazenly showcasing his immutable callousness and narcissism in public view, violating local mandates – as well as White House guidelines – on mask wearing and social distancing at a rally in North Carolina and conspicuously ignoring the devastation, pain, and suffering as fire tore through America’s most highly populated state.
National and battleground-state polling on the presidential election remained largely stable since before either party’s conventions. One wanted to believe that Woodward would have moved the needle, transforming a Biden lead which still left Democrats anxious into an unambiguous rout. In the immediate aftermath of Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic piece, (Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’, The Atlantic, 03.09.2020) the White House’s panicky, all-hands-on-deck pushback suggested that the Trump campaign was worried. Even Melania Trump’s Twitter account was immediately enlisted in an overnight effort to denounce the article as ‘fake news’. But again, one has to wonder if The Atlantic’s additional anecdotes could have moved voters who have long since absorbed Trump’s contempt for generals, for John McCain’s wartime heroism, and for the Gold Star parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain killed by a car bomb in Iraq.
What gave one a bit of hope about the Woodward book’s ability to sway some of the few still-persuadable voters was that President Trump just could not stop himself from performing for the most bold-faced name among reporters. While one could not have ruled out that he could yet claim that the recordings are a hoax, the sheer volume of his logorrhoea made it unlikely that anyone would fall for such patent lie.
Additionally, the Department of Justice’s unusual decision to intervene in Ms. E. Jean Carroll’s defamation case against Donald J. Trump seemed like an attempt to delay the disclosure of potentially damaging evidence past Election Day – and put taxpayers on the hook for Trump’s legal defence. And there was a little question about it: had the department been overstepping backfire?
It was depressing enough that a man who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by over 20 women was voted into the White House. Now Americans were literally being asked to pay for his defence in a case which grew out of Ms. Carroll’s plausible accusation of rape. This is just another, if especially unsavoury, example of the Trump Justice Department’s pattern of overstepping under the auspices of Attorney General Bill Barr. Barr had transformed the United States’ highest law-enforcement agency into a mob kingpin’s personal legal defence squad.
This latest move might have run down the clock over the following two months, which was all which was needed to allow Donald J. Trump to achieve his goal of delaying discovery, not to mention the handover of a DNA sample, in the Carroll case until after the election. This strategy, of course, was in keeping with his strenuous and equally bogus legal effort to stall the handover of his tax records. It was also consistent with his administration’s illegal efforts to shut down and falsify ‘intelligence’ about Russian election interference for the remainder of the campaign.
But in the Carroll instance, the added outrage of Trump charging the taxpayers with his legal bill could not be underestimated as a secondary motive. There’s a true cash-flow crisis in Trumpland. According to The New York Times reporting on his re-election campaign’s squandering of its once formidable trove of cash, President Trump had saddled his own donors with $1.5 million in legal bills generated in part by accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination on the campaign, and another $3.5 million-plus to fight a lawsuit by a 2016 campaign aide who accused him of an inappropriate kiss. It is nothing if not impressive how Donald J. Trump’s penchant for stiffing vendors and piling up bankruptcies had remained consistent in every chapter of his career in both the private and public sectors for nearly fifty years.
Politicians, experts, and progressives were already warning of a constitutional crisis – and the threat of outright violence – if November resulted in a contested election or mail-in ballots draw out the results. How could they anticipate that, and should voters have prepared?
While this was going on in and around the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in an interview with MSNBC confirmed that, as the number of known COVID-19 cases in the United States had, by then, surpassed 6.43 million and the nation’s death toll had topped 192,600, life would likely return to normal until sometime – but not before late – in 2021.
During a televised interview, MSNBC‘s Andrea Mitchell asked Dr. Fauci about his comments earlier in the week that it may not be safe to attend movie theatres or indoor events until a year after the United States had found and secured a safe, effective vaccine.
Dr. Fauci said that he remained confident that the United States could have a vaccine for COVID-19 by the end of 2020 or early next year, “but by the time you mobilize the distribution of the vaccinations and you get the majority or more of the population vaccinated and protected, that’s likely not gonna happen till the mid or end of 2021.”
He added: “If you’re talking about getting back to a degree of normality which resembles where we were prior to Covid, it’s gonna be well into 2021, maybe even towards the end of 2021.” Dr. Fauci made specific reference to the local and state level lockdowns and social distancing practices which had been implemented throughout the year.
A White House adviser, Dr. Fauci also disagreed with President Trump’s claim during a 10 September 2020 press briefing that the United States had “rounded the final turn” in the pandemic. Looking at the statistics, “they’re disturbing,” Dr. Fauci told the interviewer. “We’re plateauing at around 40,000 cases a day and the deaths are around 1,000.”
Dr. Fauci expressed hope that the United States would not see a post-Labor Day Weekend surge in cases like what occurred after July 4 and Memorial Day, and stressed the importance of driving down infection numbers heading into the fall and winter months.
“What we don’t want to see is going into the fall season, when people will be spending more time indoors – and that’s not good for a respiratory borne virus – you don’t want to start off already with a baseline that’s so high,” he said.
Dr. Fauci also denied that he had been influenced by the reported efforts of a Trump-allied official within the Department of Health and Human Services to muzzle him or otherwise guide what the expert says publicly about the pandemic.
Regarding an AstraZeneca’s decision earlier in the week to halt human trials for a potential vaccine after a participant in the United Kingdom showed signs of a suspected adverse reaction, Dr. Fauci said that the development was unfortunate but should also reassure the public that safety concerns were being taken seriously.
The trial delay came as AstraZeneca joined eight other pharmaceutical companies in pledging “to stand with science” amid alarm that President Trump might have pressured the industry and the Food and Drug Administration to approve a vaccine ahead of the general election. (J. Corbett, Fauci Warns Pre-Pandemic Normalcy Not Likely Until ‘Well Into’ or ‘Towards the End of 2021’, Common Dreams,11.09.2020).
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