WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump once bragged he could get away with murdering someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but can he get away with letting tens of thousands die of the coronavirus on Main Streets across America?
The answer to that question — the actual consequences of a president’s inaction, as opposed to the boast of a candidate — could determine whether he gets another four years in office.
With the U.S. death toll likely to cross 100,000 before June, the cost in human lives of Trump’s failure to pay attention to his intelligence reports and take aggressive actions to curb the disease is already becoming clear.
By May 15, 86,744 Americans had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That works out to a rate of 264 deaths for every million Americans. In contrast, South Korea and Germany, two countries whose responses have been praised by experts, have rates of 5 per million and 94 per million, respectively.
“This is malfeasance,” said Juliette Kayyem, who teaches emergency management at Harvard’s Kennedy School and worked in former President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. “This lays squarely with the White House.”
She and other crisis management and public health experts say that if Trump had quickly scaled up production of coronavirus tests by late January and instituted contact tracing to isolate those infected — as South Korea and Germany did ― the United States might have kept its death total at a fraction of what it is today.
“This is malfeasance.”
The German death rate extrapolated across the United States’ larger population would have meant 30,965 COVID-19 fatalities to date. The even lower South Korean rate would have meant just 1,663 deaths.
Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked on the widely praised 2014 Ebola response under Obama, said South Korea clearly had an advantage in combatting this virus after it improved its infectious disease response following the MERS outbreak in 2015. “A South Korea-like performance was probably beyond us in the initial phase, because they had public health capacities in place that we didn’t,” he said. “But we could have had as good or better than Germany if we had adopted South Korea’s attitude: assuming it was here already or soon would be, and vigorously preparing for that eventuality.”
Kayyem said the U.S. number could have been lower still — likely below 20,000 at this point ― if elder care facilities had been immediately safeguarded and New York City been locked down much earlier.
“January, February, March were the squandered months,” she said, adding that consequential decisions were left to governors and mayors who did not have access to the intelligence warnings that Trump began receiving in early January. “You cannot run a national response with an Articles of Confederation mindset.”
Trump, nevertheless, has repeatedly claimed that his response has been outstanding. “What we’ve done is incredible,” he said last week at a White House meeting with Republican lawmakers. “They’re saying great things about me and the job we’re doing.”
At a Rose Garden news conference Friday, he said: “I’m doing a great job.”
Pressed for details of that response, however, Trump invariably falls back on the travel restrictions he imposed on Jan. 31 on foreigners who had been in China in the previous two weeks. “We banned people from China coming in,” he told the GOP lawmakers. “It had never been done before. Nothing like that had ever been done before.”
Trump, however, never mentions that his “ban” came only after U.S. airlines had already stopped flights from China and dozens of other countries had already imposed similar restrictions. What’s more, Trump’s order allowed another 40,000 travelers, primarily U.S. citizens and legal residents, to return from China — for the most part, without being tested or quarantined.
Even more important, experts said, was Trump’s failure to mass produce functioning tests and to come up with a comprehensive plan to isolate those who tested positive for the virus. Had that approach been taken and properly executed, the proportionate number of cases and deaths could have been held to what has been accomplished by South Korea and Germany.
“We could have detected transmission chains on the West Coast and in New York City much earlier and greatly limited their growth,” Konyndyk said. “That in turn would have meant much lower spread to the rest of the country.”
Trump instead spent seven full weeks downplaying the danger of the virus, describing it as milder than the seasonal flu, claiming it would go away on its own come April, and even calling concerns about it “a hoax” designed to hurt his reelection prospects.
Over that period, he continually redefined success to allow for ever higher numbers of fatalities.
In his first public statement on the pandemic threat on Jan. 22, Trump claimed he was not worried about the coronavirus because it had infected just “one person” who had come in from China.
At a Feb. 26 press briefing, the first of what became a near-daily event for almost two months, Trump was still claiming that no deaths would take place. “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” he said.
In a March 9 tweet, Trump wrote: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
It took another week for Trump to finally acknowledge that the number of deaths would be significantly higher from the coronavirus than from the seasonal flu. “And so if we could hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number, maybe even less — but to 100,000,” he said at the March 15 briefing. “So we have between 100 and 200,000, and we altogether have done a very good job.”
But on April 20, Trump was claiming the total would be far lower. “We’re going toward 50 or 60,000 people. ... We could end up at 50 to 60.”
“'Better than complete inaction’ is quite the victory lap.”
As that figure was exceeded, Trump raised his estimate. During a May 3 Fox News town hall shot at the Lincoln Memorial, Trump said, “I used to say 65,000. Now I’m saying 80 or 90, and it goes up and it goes up rapidly.”
And by the morning of May 8, he had upped his estimate even further. “We’ll be at 100,000, 110,000, higher,” he said during a phone interview with one of his favorite television shows, “Fox & Friends.”
But even in that interview, Trump repeated a line he has used previously about what will constitute success in his mind: the upper bound of the estimate of how many people would have died had no action been taken at all. “Because if I didn’t, we would have lost two million, two and a half million, maybe more than that,” he said.
“‘Better than complete inaction’ is quite the victory lap,” Konyndyk said.
Victory, though, is exactly what Trump will claim, regardless of the actual facts, said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican political consultant from Florida.
“He did shoot thousands of people in the street,” Stipanovich said, recalling Trump’s boast from the 2016 campaign. “Will he get away with it? I don’t know. He could. It’s going to be a ‘he said, she said’ thing.”
And what Trump has already been saying is that he has saved “millions” with his leadership.
“He is desperate to create his newest and most challenging alternative reality where the death toll is over-reported, he acted earlier than anyone, and testing is universal,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “While we know none of those things to be true, Trump will spin them anyway and I suspect most of his supporters will believe whatever pops into his head and comes out of his mouth.”
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