At a roundtable at Louisiana State University on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence paused to make what he clearly felt was a vital point.
“To be very clear,” he said, “we don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools.”
In other words, schools and universities, which the Trump administration is pushing to rapidly reopen despite surging coronavirus infections in many states, need not heed the advice of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s premier public health agency, as they reopen amid an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 136,000 people in the U.S.
Suggesting that schools ignore expert advice meant to keep kids, parents and school staff safe would, in a different administration, be shocking. But in recent weeks, President Donald Trump and his team have led a brazen attack on COVID-19 science and scientists in a desperate effort to deny away a deadly pandemic that the administration’s incompetence has made far worse. That effort has included downplaying the ongoing threat, diverting crucial hospital data from the CDC, smearing infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, and casting blame on China, the World Health Organization and Americans from Northern states.
The COVID response is part of the Trump administration’s long war on all forms of science and expertise. The administration has cast out or discredited science that does not align with Trump’s fossil fuel-centric “energy dominance” agenda, his reelection campaign or, in some cases, that contradicts what the president said on Twitter.
The president himself has repeatedly denied climate change, questioned the science of vaccinations and invented weather forecasts for a hurricane. When hundreds of researchers from more than a dozen federal agencies warned in a November 2018 report that the world is barreling toward catastrophic climate change, Trump simply said of the findings: “I don’t believe it.” His anti-science beliefs have been made into policy by the ex-industry lobbyists appointed to run environmental and scientific agencies across his administration.
The president on Wednesday traveled to Atlanta ― a current hotspot of the virus ― to speak unmasked at a UPS facility, where he announced a major rollback of one of the nation’s most important environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act. Among other things, the rollback fast-tracks oil pipelines, power plants and other major infrastructure projects by limiting the number that require in-depth environmental reviews, as well as allowing federal agencies to ignore how developments impact climate change. At the event, Trump thanked UPS drivers for continuing to deliver packages during America’s “battle against the China virus,” one of several racist terms he continues to use to describe coronavirus.
While much of Trump’s opposition to climate and environmental science is common among Republican presidents and lawmakers, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shows how deadly this rejection of science can be. And his strategy heading into the 2020 election appears to be to convince Americans that the death and suffering happening around them isn’t really that bad, and certainly isn’t his fault.
Attacking The Messenger
While denial and finger-pointing have dominated Trump’s coronavirus response from the start, the assault on reality has escalated in recent weeks. Most alarming is the administration’s new effort to undermine Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the person a majority of Americans have come to trust during the pandemic.
The White House’s most direct effort began on Sunday, when it distributed what looked like campaign opposition research to reporters listing Fauci’s perceived misjudgments about the pandemic before the virus spread was recognized. Stories appeared noting that the Trump administration was preparing an attack on Fauci, but these attacks were all attributed to unnamed administration officials.
“Dr. Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”
By then, it had been more than a month since Fauci had spoken with the president, The Washington Post reported. The administration had stopped sending Fauci out for major media interviews as they were displeased that he did not endorse reopening the economy nor did he take part in Trump’s happy talk that the virus will “just disappear.”
“Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in a July 9 interview.
Fauci has continued to appear on podcasts and do interviews with online publications.
“[A]s a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great,” Fauci said on a FiveThiryEight.com podcast that aired on July 9. “I mean, we’re just not.”
The White House clearly decided that the nation’s leading infectious disease expert was out over his skis to speak plainly about the worst pandemic in a century. His concern about controlling a public health crisis had become a distraction from Trump’s effort to restart the economy, a central task of his reelection campaign.
Fauci “doesn’t necessarily … have the whole national interest in mind,” Adm. Brett P. Giroir, assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “He looks at it from a very narrow public health point of view.”
The attacks on Fauci escalated when USA Today published an op-ed from White House trade adviser Peter Navarro on Tuesday in which he aired his grievances about the public health official. “Dr. Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on,” Navarro wrote.
The White House attempted to downplay Navarro’s falsehood-ridden attacks by asserting that he published the op-ed on his own without official approval. In prior administrations, this act would be a fireable offense. In this one, there’s little indication that Navarro will be punished at all.
Fauci told The Atlantic in an interview published Wednesday that he has no plans to step down and called the White House’s attack against him “bizarre,” “nonsense” and “completely wrong.”
“Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that,” he said.
Passing The Buck
Trump has continually refused to take any blame for negligence or errors in his administration’s response to the pandemic.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said at a now-infamous Rose Garden press conference on March 13, the day the nation began to go into lockdown.
It was instead former President Barack Obama’s fault, Trump claimed. Trump’s attempt to pass the buck to the previous administration came despite his disbanding of a pandemic response team at the National Security Council and his refusal to follow the plan used by the Obama administration to successfully respond to both the H1N1 and Ebola viruses.
More recently, Trump has claimed that former vice president Joe “Biden and Obama stopped their testing,” despite the coronavirus not existing until three years after they left office.
Trump has stuck to that narrative, claiming that his own excellent work prevented potentially millions of additional deaths. At an event Tuesday that was billed as a White House press conference but quickly devolved into a rambling campaign rally-style speech, Trump railed against China, for “concealing” and “unleashing” the coronavirus “upon the world,” and the World Health Organization ― a go-to move to distract from his own botched pandemic response.
He dismissed the WHO as “a puppet of China” and a “terrible deal,” and bragged about cutting ties with the world body and redirecting the approximately $450 million the U.S. contributes to it each year.
“We’ve been I guess as tough as you can get on World Health,” Trump said Tuesday. “We withdrew our money, we told them we’re getting out. Doesn’t mean that someday we won’t go back in, maybe we will when it’s correctly run. But they made a lot of bad predictions and they said a lot of bad things about what to do and how to do it, and they turned out to be wrong.
It’s truly baffling stuff from the leader of a country that is among the most ravaged by the coronavirus, with 3.45 million infections to date.
Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO is not the only counterproductive policy change that he has pursued due to his need to control his image rather than abide by decisions informed by public health science.
The Real Damage
The president’s rejection of expertise, histrionic defensiveness and bizarre false statements are not simply utterances of an uninformed man. They inform the administration’s policies that are undermining efforts to control the virus’s spread, which means more Americans will die.
His administration was slow to fund testing across the country, failed to properly promote mask-wearing when it became clear it would help slow the virus’s spread, purchased tens of millions of reserves of Trump’s favorite unproven coronavirus remedy hydroxychloroquine and is now rerouting hospital data away from the CDC, in a seeming effort to keep the public in the dark.
“I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please,’” Trump told the crowd at an indoor campaign rally he hosted on June 20 that was likely the source of a surge in virus cases in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
On June 24, the administration announced it would close 13 federally funded COVID testing sites.
Trump has repeatedly claimed, falsely, that the only reason the country is seeing an increase in cases is because more tests are being conducted. Public health officials have countered this falsehood, pointing to the data on COVID-19 hospitalizations reported to the CDC.
But the administration announced on Tuesday that hospitals should cease reporting such data to the CDC and instead direct it to a private data collector that the Department of Health and Human Services has contracted. The move puts the data collection under the control of more partisan officials close to the Trump White House where it is not currently publicly reported. Already, COVID tracking sites report that the digital CDC data stream they relied on to provide public updates on the virus has stopped.
In much the same way that denying and undermining climate science allows Trump to justify scrapping and weakening environmental rules to the benefit of polluting industries that helped bankroll his campaign, covering up and dismissing COVID-19 data is about protecting himself.
But like climate science, the science of this virus is not on Trump’s side. It shows that his team’s lethargic initial response and subsequent push to quickly reopen the economy has had devastating impacts. And that’s exactly why the president will spend the next four months spinning a revisionist history.