Scott Brinton

A maddening tale of two presidencies


Donald Trump revealed his true self to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward over the course of 18 interviews beginning last December, appearing coherent and well-informed — in matter-of-fact terms, for example, he noted as early as February that he knew the coronavirus was five times more deadly than the more “strenuous” strains of the flu.
Trump could have acted decisively to stem the tide of disease that overwhelmed the U.S. But he didn’t.
Many were unsure whether he could understand the gravity of the illness or the science required to contain it. In April he suggested — seemingly seriously — that we might inject patients with disinfectant and irradiate them with ultraviolent light to kill the virus, prompting public health officials to issue urgent news releases cautioning people not to try this at home.
Trump, to many, appeared to have lost his mind. As it turns out, we now know from Woodward’s interviews with the president that it was all performance art, a display of showmanship intended to obfuscate and deceive in the vain hope that Americans wouldn’t notice the rapidly rising Covid-19 death toll or unemployment rate.
Woodward recorded nearly all the interviews with Trump for his latest book, “Rage,” which was set to be published after press time. Snippets of the interviews were released for public consumption last week, and were aired on “60 Minutes” last Sunday. In them, Trump appears lucid, articulate, in command of the facts, without a hint of mental illness.

That is the maddening part of this tale. At least if he were suffering from lunacy, like a latter-day King George III, then he might be excused for bungling the national strategy to contain the coronavirus. The interviews make clear, however, that Trump is perfectly sane.
He claimed he lied to the American people about the deadliness of the coronavirus so as not to incite panic. Many pundits, however, pointed out that Trump has had little trouble stoking fear, even panic, on any number of issues — from immigration to public housing — when it suits his political aims.
His 2016 election strategy was to engage in an all-out culture war to divide the country along entrenched political lines, and then win at the margins by picking up disaffected Democrats and right-leaning independents who, on occasion in the past, had voted for centrist Dems. It worked.
To date, Trump has followed his 2016 playbook, sowing division wherever he can, including in the U.S.’s approach to the coronavirus. He knew as early as February that Covid-19 was an airborne disease, and yet he eschewed masks from the get-go, mocking former Vice President Joe Biden relentlessly for wearing one in public and never requiring their use at his mass rallies — which he continues to hold, despite local mandates forbidding such gatherings. That is, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer is flouting the laws he is sworn to uphold.
The result: The U.S. was projected to surpass 200,000 coronavirus deaths this weekend. It is, by far, the world’s highest death toll — Brazil, the second highest, had 129,575 deaths as of Sept. 12. It should be noted that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has followed Trump’s coronavirus playbook, at times pretending the disease is relatively harmless, at others ignoring it and taking minimal action to contain it while claiming his administration is doing all it can to fight it.
It needn’t have been this way. China, where Covid-19 originated, had 4,634 deaths as of last weekend; Germany, 9,421; Canada, 9,170; South Korea, 355; New Zealand, 24. Each of these nations acted quickly, according to a national plan, not our state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city hodgepodge of approaches, which have ranged from exceptional to downright dangerous.
Trump had a national playbook that he could have — and should have — studied, but he chose to ignore it. President Barack Obama left him a 68-page report titled, “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents,” developed by the National Security Council in 2016, according to “PBS NewsHour.”
Obama was tested early in his presidency, in 2009, when the H1N1 flu raged across the globe, including in the U.S. On May 2 that year, he addressed the nation, and here, in part, according to White House transcripts, is what he said:
“Over the last week, my administration has taken several precautions to address the challenge posed by the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. . . .
“This is a new strain of the flu virus, and because we haven’t developed an immunity to it, it has more potential to cause us harm. Unlike the various strains of animal flu that have emerged in the past, it’s a flu that is spreading from human to human. This creates the potential for a pandemic, which is why we are acting quickly and aggressively.”
Obama continued, remaining calm and truthful. H1N1 stayed with us for nearly two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 12,500 Americans died of the disease during that time.
If only Trump had followed his predecessor’s approach.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column?