Neil Baron

Trump is on a final crime spree of negligent homicide

Germany and France just imposed nationwide lockdowns in response to a new wave of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Donald Trump mocked them and refused to follow suit, even though the U.S. has more deaths per 100,000 people and record daily cases continuing to surge in 44 states. Trump exposing Americans to death from Covid-19 is not only a reason to vote him out of office; it also fits the definition of criminal negligent homicide.

That crime occurs when a person who is aware of the risk causes the death of another by a careless or reckless act, or by failure to perform a duty. The crime does not require an intent to cause death. It is punishable by imprisonment for six months to ten years, depending on the state.

Trump was well aware of the risk of death from his brazen actions, omissions, and failure to fulfill his acknowledged duty to keep Americans safe. The upward trajectory of Covid cases and deaths, now at 8.93 million and 228,000 respectively, has been a siren alerting everyone to the risk that many people would die. Even 70% of Republicans were alarmed. Indeed, Trump admitted on February 7 that he knew Covid was a deadly threat.

Today it's estimated that another 250,000 to 300,00 Americans will die from the virus in the coming months. Not even President Trump, with his penchant for dismissing inconvenient facts and fake news and conspiracy theories, can claim he was or is unaware of Covid's risk of death.

In fact, he was aware of our vulnerability to deadly pandemics even before he took office. President Obama presented a simulation of a global pandemic to Trump's transition team and warned that the U.S. could face shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs, and other medical essentials. Trump was told we would need to mount a unified national pandemic response. Trump was also told that unless he invested more in biodefense now, we'd pay much more in "human and economic costs" later.

Trump ignored those warnings and never prepared for a pandemic. He fired Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who advocated strengthening our pandemic defenses, and didn't replace him until February, 2020. Trump's National Security Council adviser disbanded the entire U.S. pandemic response team.

As a result, we were not prepared for the onslaught of Covid-19 and suffered more deaths that we otherwise would have. This year, the U.S. experienced such acute shortages of protective equipment that Trump had to ask to ask other countries for supplies, even while he boasted, "We have millions of masks being done. We have respirators. We have ventilators."

Trump underplayed the virus's risk and encouraged Americans to abandon caution while he knew it was deadly, causing additional casualties. He predicted the death rate "within a couple of days is going will be close to zero," and that the virus would "disappear like a miracle." He falsely claimed we were "very close to a vaccine," and falsely assured the public that COVID-19 was "totally under control."

Trump's Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx hobbled the CDC's collection of hospital data by handing it over to a private company, despite the objections and advice of her staff. The company's reporting understated the number of reported cases – a result Trump cherished because it obfuscated the damage he's wreaked upon America.

Trump discouraged wearing masks and social distancing, both by personal example and through his aides. His inexperienced science adviser Scott W. Atlas claimed that masks were ineffective and that children could not contaminate others. Many Americans believed him and chose not to wear masks or social distance, which may have added as many as 130,000 deaths.

Unlike previous Presidents, Trump failed to fulfill his duty to lead the fight against a pandemic. President Obama coordinated a 10,000-person international team to stop Ebola in West Africa and prepared U.S. states­­­- for a possible outbreak. As a result only two people contracted Ebola while on American soil and neither died. Obama also led distribution of respirators, protective masks, gowns and gloves to U.S. states to combat the H1N1 virus in 2009.

Trump has disgracefully abandoned the global leadership role the U.S. played over seven decades in fighting infectious diseases, including Ebola, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, AIDS, avian influenza and Zika.

He also failed to meet his responsibility under the Defense Production Act, which authorizes the President to force production and distribution of materials needed in a crisis. Instead, he admonished governors that the federal government is "not a shipping clerk" and that states should procure their own supplies, even while governors pleaded for national leadership.

Trump may not be the only elected official who should worry about being charged with negligent homicide. All 24 Democratic governors and 19 of 26 Republican governors issued stay-at-home orders, but seven GOP-controlled states never did, despite rising covid numbers. State officials responsible for putting their citizens at risk aren't immune from the risk of being held criminally responsible. Negligent homicide is a state, not a federal, crime, so Trump could not interfere with prosecutions or pardon state officials convicted of it. They should ask themselves if currying Trump's favor is worth the risk.

*Neil Baron is an attorney who has represented many institutions involved in the international markets and advised various parts of the federal government on economic issues.

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Most presidents lie. Nixon said he was not a crook. Reagan said he wasn’t aware of the Iran-Contra deal. Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman.

But Trump’s lies are different. They are more frequent and glaringly contradict the facts: Obama wiretapped the phones at Trump Tower; there was record turnout at Trump’s inauguration; Trump knows no one who has anything to do with Russia; he knows more about ISIS than our generals.

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Why do such lies persist in our memories, while repeated proof of their falsity fades; and why do we still believe the lie, or not change our opinions of the liar? Two theories can explain this.

One theory is called “confirmation bias.” It describes the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.” Some psychologists describe it as the “prevalence of directional reasoning that aims not at truth, but at the vindication of prior opinions.” Even the most well-educated and smartest among us succumb to this phenomenon.

Psychological studies find that to conclude that a statement is a lie, our brain must first record the statement for an instant as true. We must accept something to understand it. Only then, can we engage it to process the refutation. However, the imprint of the statement endures, while the refutation fades in our memory. Also lucky for Trump, is that our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream.

These phenomena are alive and well among Republicans. Eighty-six percent of them continue to support Trump despite the media’s repeated debunking of his obvious lies.

Joseph Goebbels wrote, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it … The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the … consequences of the lie.” Hitler coined the expression “the Big Lie” in Mein Kampf. He wrote of a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." 

Trump seems to understand this. According to his ex-wife, Ivana, he kept My New Order, a book of Hitler's collected speeches, near his bed and read it from time to time. Trump himself said in The Art of the Deal, “Tell people a lie 3 times, they will believe anything.” He clearly knows that colossal lies attract colossal press coverage, and that it works for him even when the press refutes them.

As Goebbels said, “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from [its] … consequences.” To be sure, there are consequences. 

I have participated in rating the sovereign debt of several countries. I doubt that Trump’s behavior by itself will lower S&P’s double A+ and Moody’s and Fitch’s triple A ratings of U.S. debt (as it might in other countries). But Moody’s and Fitch already have their U.S. ratings on negative outlook, and given continued fiscal deterioration or continued political brinksmanship, which can be caused by the poor governance we’re witnessing in the Trump administration, downgrades are possible.

Another consequence: Media coverage has made the world aware of Trump’s lies and his responses with incessant tweeting and vicious attacks on the press and other critics. As a result, our allies and trading partners are uncertain and worried about our trade, economic and military relations with them, which has frozen progress in those areas.

We know the media, particularly broadcast media, must be conscious of their ratings. But their fundamental mission is to inform and not distort information by excessive coverage in pursuit of higher ratings. It’s a thorny problem for journalists to know when coverage distorts. Perhaps they should report the lies enough to debunk them through evidence and experts, and be reasonably confident that their reporting has been heard.

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