By Jay Stevens
Few may remember, but in early summer 1973, Howard Baker, a Republican Senator from Tennessee, asked a question of President Richard Nixon and the Watergate break-in the year before: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
What’s perhaps most telling about this question is the realization that there was a Republican Senator who helped bring down the Republican president. In recent months, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has been as high as 93 percent.
Howard Baker was not the only Republican to break ranks with Nixon. One can only wonder how different life might be today if there were even a handful of Republican legislators brave enough to regularly challenge President Trump.
After reviewing information about the resources and information President Trump had available to tackle the Coronavirus outbreak, today Baker’s query perhaps can be modified a bit to ask, “What did the president not care to know—and when could he have not cared to know about it?”
Recently, a host of publications and writers have tackled the timetable of when the Trump administration first received fair warning of the likelihood of a new pandemic that could rival the Spanish Flu of 1918 that claimed at least 675,000 lives in the U.S. alone—and tens of millions of people worldwide.
In recent months, there have been a host of “fall guys & gals” Trump points to whenever an erstwhile reporter tries to ask an appropriate and insightful question about his response to coronavirus. None has loomed larger than former President Barack Obama.
Whenever Trump sets the scene for his initial response to the pandemic, it’s always a tale of self-pity. He’ll say he took over at a time when Obama had literally let the federal stockpile of medical supplies dwindle away. Using a line from the children’s nursery rhyme, Old Mother Hubbard, Trump often says ‘the cupboard was bare,’ as if to suggest gleeful Obama aides held a fire sale right out of the West Wing on Inauguration eve, featuring masks and medical gowns at bargain-basement prices.
Timetables recently constructed by a variety of media sources, including The New York Times, NPR, Salon, and The Associated Press tell a much different story—one of pandemic warnings aired even before and during the presidential transition. And even if the proverbial cupboard was bare, Team Trump had over three years to make sure that cupboard was restocked with needed PPE’s should any pandemic or other national emergency occur.
Listeners to Cassandra Harris-Lockwood’s show ‘The Hot Seat’ on 95.5 The Heat will recognize some of the highlights of the Trump coronavirus timetable—a timeline that in many cases directly contradicts the many claims emanating from the presidential pulpit in recent weeks that he has long been doing an ‘incredible’ or ‘amazing’ job stopping the spread of the disease. Here goes:
• December, 2014–Then-President Barack Obama delivers a speech to the National Institute of Health, where he urges those listening to build the global infrastructure to deal with an airborne pandemic that he said could easily hit the U.S. in the near future.
• January, 2017—President Obama’s National Security Team leaves the incoming Trump Administration a 69-page briefing book, finished just prior to the inauguration, with information on how to prepare for the possibility of a global pandemic. Included in the book were suggestions on how to get more PPE’s—including how to enact the Defense Production Act to get industries involved. Even with information on hand on how to ramp up preparedness quickly, the Trump team waited until Mid-March of this year to begin large-scale ordering of essential medical supplies—and by then, social distancing already had begun. (On this the chain of command broke down with successive NSA’s being removed and displaced)
• January, 2017—Just days before the inauguration, the Obama Administration conducts a three-hour briefing for about 30 Trump aides, where they presented a scenario: A pandemic much like the Spanish Flu hits the U.S. The meeting included information on how to address the shortage of ventilators; the lack of solid anti-viral medicines; and how to unify Americans to address the response. Some of the attendees were key figures for the incoming administration, including Commerce Secretary Nominee Wilbur Ross, who reportedly had his eyes closed during a lot of the briefing. (Does this man remain in office?)
• 2017-18–Early budget decisions by Trump devastate the Centers for Disease Control, including an 80 percent cut to the agency’s efforts to reduce global disease outbreaks.
• May, 2018—National Security Advisor John Bolton hammers the nail in the coffin by firing the entire Global Pandemic Response Center—the team tasked with fighting epidemics like COVID-19. (John Bolton no longer on board.)
• September, 2019—An NSC study concludes that a global pandemic like the Spanish Flu was a serious threat to happen again, causing up to 500,000 deaths, and nearly $4 trillion in losses to the American economy.
• January 3, 2020—The Trump administration first learns of a new viral disease spreading in China; The Washington Post will publish the first story about it five days later.
• January 18, 2020—Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tries to tell Trump about the virus in a telephone call, but Trump frequently interrupts, more interested in learning when flavored vaping products will again be marketed to the public.
• January 20, 2020—The first confirmed U.S. coronavirus case
• January 22, 2020—Trump tells CNBC the virus is contained and is just “one person from China.”
• January 24, 2020—Wuhan, China is shut down; Trump says “all will work out well” in regards to the virus.
• January 27, 2020—White House aides are able to convince Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to start holding regular meetings concerning coronavirus; however, there still is no one tapped in the administration to lead the effort.
• January 29, 2020—White House Economic Adviser Peter Navarro says the virus is serious and could claim over 500,000 American lives—a prediction Trump ignores.
• February 10, 2020—Trump’s now-famous statement that he’s not concerned because by April, the virus will die out in warmer weather.
• February 12, 2020—The New York Times says the CDC sent out thousands of flawed COVID-19 test kits to state laboratories. (CDC seriously depleted)
• February 21, 2020—The Coronavirus Task Force is regularly meeting, and advises Trump social distancing may soon be necessary.
• February 25, 2020—Number of coronavirus tests done in the U.S.—500
• February 29, 2020—First confirmed death in America due to coronavirus
• March 6, 2020—America’s testing capacity is still below 2,000 tests a day, well below the per capita rate in much smaller countries like South Korea.
• March 13, 2020—The testing capacity is still only about 22,000 tests a day in the U.S.
• March 15, 2020—New York City requests 2 million masks; they receive 76,000 from the federal government; all of them have expired.
• March 18, 2020—States and localities still lack the testing capability, as social distancing is well underway.
• April 14, 2020—Trump says he plans to end U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. He blames the agency for the early spread of coronavirus, saying among other things that it trusted misleading claims made by the Chinese government about the virus’s origin.
• April 17, 2020—Trump tweets his approval of a series of protests in states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio by people protesting stay-at-home orders. At other times in the following week, however, he says states like Georgia and South Carolina moving to ease restrictions on businesses are acting too quickly.
• April 20, 2020—Trump says he will issue a broad order suspending immigration. He justifies it as a necessity to protect American jobs. Within a day he walks back some of the order’s strictest provisions due to an outcry from the farm industry and other businesses still needing workers.
• April 23, 2020—Trump makes perhaps the most bizarre statement among many he’s uttered in his daily Coronavirus Task Force press briefings. He asks his aides if injecting disinfectants into the lungs, or zapping patients with light could clean people up from the inside and cure coronavirus.
And what about Trump’s almost incessant claims over the past several months that the restrictions he placed on travel to and from China saved “hundreds of thousands of lives”? After studying the claims, FactCheck.org concluded that the Chinese travel restrictions had modest benefits at best—perhaps helping to slow the spread of the virus a bit in the early weeks outside of China, but not doing much at all to contain it.
Trump’s actions have done a lot more than just help boost the initial spread of the virus. But it can be argued that a significant amount of the virus’s spread has come at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged.
For example, Trump has barely acknowledged the fact that statistics about COVID-19 show that it has disproportionately impacted people of color.
Statistics released in April showed that 70 percent of people dying of COVID-19 in Chicago were Black—and Black people make up only 30 percent of the population. Figures from Louisiana were very similar—Blacks make up about a third of the state’s population, and 70 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths in the state were among African-Americans.
While Trump has said he plans to review the problem, there were no specifics on how that might be done. And his frequent recitation of ideas for combating the virus, that sound like something from the days of the Salem Witch Trials, is only another way he is sowing confusion, shifting the blame—and encouraging the vulnerable to ignore sensible guidelines backed by public health experts.
If you listen carefully enough, you will also hear hints coming from Trump that he plans to use COVID-19 as an excuse to disenfranchise voters. When he says he doesn’t trust voting by mail, he’s laying the groundwork for a ‘September surprise’ where he could seek precedent to delay or even postpone the election.
The stakes have never been higher, and this is one time to be thankful many of our Governors and mayors of major cities. Whether you’re a fan of Andrew Cuomo or not, he’s been a model of consistency and rationality throughout this crisis—and he uses his regular briefings to inform, not to sow discord. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer also stand out as sensible, empathetic officials who want to protect the health of their constituents.
A case could be made that Trump’s enthusiastic responses to the end-the-lockdown protests and his assertion that America must be reopened soon are really just a strong hint that he doesn’t care what happens in America’s low-income neighborhoods or in the nursing home where your grandmother lives.
If it could be proved that a shot of Lysol to the brain might clean it out and result in empathy and enlightenment that might be a cure for this surprising lack of concern for others by the president. But barring that, it is up to all of us to demand that before America reopens, we work together to find out why this virus attacks the people that it does, and to make sure we have the research and testing to adequately show who does and does not have it.