Trump didn't just botch his response to the coronavirus — his team tried to cover it up: op-ed

Trump didn't just botch his response to the coronavirus — his team tried to cover it up: op-ed
President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence participate in a Coronavirus briefing with health insurers Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

As the number of Americans killed by the coronavirus pandemic continues to soar, President Donald Trump and his allies in the White House continue to face widespread criticism over how they responded to COVID-19 back in January and February — when Trump seriously downplayed its potential threat to the United States. Law professor Ryan Goodman, in an article he wrote for the New York Times with law student Danielle Schulkin, asserts that the Trump White House’s actions in late February go beyond mere incompetence and amount to “a cover-up.”

“A look at this window of time gives insight into how several members of the president’s team were willing to manipulate Americans even when so many lives were at stake,” Goodman and Schulkin explain.

Goodman teaches at New York University’s School of Law, while Schulkin is a law student there.

Trump, defending his initial response to the pandemic, has asserted that no one could have seen such a crisis coming. But Goodman and Schulkin report that in fact, some people in Trump’s orbit were sounding the alarm in February.

“Senior officials knew the coronavirus was an extreme threat to Americans,” according to Goodman and Schulkin. “Thanks to information streaming in from U.S. intelligence agencies for months, officials reportedly believed that a ‘cataclysmic’ disease could infect 100 million Americans and discussed lockdown plans. The warnings were given to Mr. Trump in his daily brief by the intelligence community; in calls from Alex Azar, the secretary of health; and in memos from his economic adviser, Peter Navarro.”

During that late February period, Goodman and Schulkin note, Trump wanted to fire Dr. Nancy Messonnier — the top expert on viral respiratory disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Messonnier, in late February, warned, “We want to make sure the American public is prepared. We as a family ought to be preparing for significant disruption to our lives.”

But even after Messonnier made it clear that the administration completely understood the scale of the threat, officials began dialing back the warnings and trying to conceal the truth:

That Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Azar appeared at a news briefing, public health professionals including Dr. Anthony Fauci behind him, and discussed Dr. Messonnier’s comments. “We’re trying to engage in radical transparency with the American public as we go through this,” he declared. But within 20 seconds of that statement, he uttered state propaganda. “Thanks to the president and this team’s aggressive containment efforts,” he said, coronavirus “is contained.”

That same day, Larry Kudlow, the president’s National Economic Council director, in direct response to Dr. Messonnier’s comments, told CNBC: “We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.”

The following day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke to the military. In a video conference with American commanders around the world, he instructed them to give notice on decisions made about how to protect their personnel from the virus if doing so might “run afoul of President Trump’s messaging,” according to a New York Times report.

It was also during that period that the U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence, according to Goodman and Schulkin, “raised the warning level inside the government to WATCHCON1, concluding that the coronavirus was imminently likely to develop into a full-blown pandemic. But the White House did not want the American public to know.”

And that “cover-up,” according to Goodman and Schulkin, raises serious questions about whether or not Americans can trust the Trump White House during a deadly pandemic.

“Understanding this playbook is not only important in its own terms,” Goodman and Schulkin write. “It goes to the heart of whether Americans can trust this administration in the months ahead when they must make life-or-death decisions about how to protect their health and when to reboot the economy.”

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