I’m not a doctor, a nurse or a hospital worker. I can’t save lives from my keyboard. But I am a journalist. And while politicians pompously announce that now is not the time to look backwards, journalists have learned again and again there is no time when it doesn’t help to know — to know who did what, when, why and how, and what they didn’t do.
When it comes to COVID-19, there is a compelling need to see what might have gone wrong and how we can make the necessary changes in the present and the days to come — learning on the fly, then expeditiously and with expertise, making the most appropriate course corrections.
Instead, the president is in a rush to do two other things: make us forget this ever happened, and pretend we can quickly move beyond the present inconvenient epidemic into his reelection.
And so there is a special need for journalists to do this work in the face of a daily barrage of misinformation — misinformation that, in some respects, has been tragically effective: a false narrative that has empowered Republican governors to defy medical advice, and to minimize the one mitigation tactic — social distancing — that has been most effective in battling COVID-19.
For weeks, Trump has downplayed the crisis: it’s hard to maintain the myth of continuing greatness — his and, by extension, American exceptionalism — with the reality of health care workers without proper protective equipment, thousands of their patients on ventilators, and millions upon millions terrified their husbands, wives, children, friends and neighbors could end up in intensive care or the morgue.
Tragically, the president and his Fox friends emboldened Americans to ignore “the hoax” and to continue to gather in large groups, to Mardi Gras and spring break:
Early polling revealed the stark difference between those predisposed to trust the science and those who relied on the president. Between March 13-16, 2020, Survey 160 and Gradient polled Americans with a special emphasis on Washington, which experienced the first surge. They found “significant partisan gaps in concern about the outbreak’s possible effects on their health and that of their family, on the approval of the federal response, and on the seriousness of the outbreak relative to media coverage.”
Enter investigative journalism and rigorous reporting. There’s what we’ve been told, are being told, and what might be happening below the surface. While the president was telling his supporters in late February in South Carolina about the hoax, in private he was being told about the science: that a dreadful pandemic was coming our way,
On April 11, 2020, the New York Times article “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus” documented the battle that roiled the Trump administration, a battle between the truth-tellers and those that hoped to manage, even deny, the news. That truth lost for so long had devastating consequence for all of us.
But as the Times details: “The president, though, was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he said, that had come out of nowhere and could not have been foreseen.” (Emphasis added.)
As Donald Trump ignored the warnings of many public health experts within and without the administration, many ordinary people were guided by the actions of the president himself. In an April 10, 2020, article in USA Today, Gus Garcia-Roberts and Michael Braga noted the marked discrepancy between what the president was doing on a daily basis and the reality on the ground as the virus made its way into our country:
“By Friday, March 6 … There were confirmed cases in two dozen states, including Washington, where a state of emergency had been declared after at least 10 people died in the previous week in connection with a single nursing home. New York City was experiencing an alarming upward trend in cases. A cruise ship carrying infected passengers idled off the California coast, waiting for a port to allow them to disembark. Hospitals, nursing homes and health officials around the country worried over a lack of testing capabilities and a shortage of medical equipment …
“And just a day earlier, the chief of the World Health Organization (WHO) had explicitly beseeched world leaders to prepare, warning that the ‘epidemic can be pushed back, but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government.’
“Armed with all of that evidence, President Donald Trump spent the next week treating COVID-19 in much the same way that he had over the previous two months: he hosted large gatherings at Mar-a-Lago, went golfing, attended fundraisers, dispensed misinformation about the virus and flouted social distancing guidelines known to stem its spread. If his behavior was meant to be a model for Americans to follow, the message was clear — life could proceed as normal.” (Emphasis added.)
From its earliest days, the Trump administration was uncomfortable with the truth. His inaugural just had to be bigger than President Obama’s. Employing a presidential counselor, Kellyane Conway, who proudly defended their misstatements as “alternative facts.” Many of us grew to consider falsehood as just a part of the new reality. Inescapable. Unremarkable. In a sense, we surrendered to the daily deluge of lies. You could easily spend a half hour correcting the many falsehoods of a half-hour press conference. Luckily, the Washington Post had an inexhaustible supply of its Pinocchios to award to the Trumpian fabrications, multiplying faster than rabbits.
Worn down, worn out, numb. These days we are treated to Trump’s odd version of stand-up: Daily hour-long, two-hour-long mostly monologues that begin with a script of sorts but veer quickly off the rails into idiosyncratic riffs, all meant to keep the president front and center on the prime time stage. Having watched almost all of these performances, it seems to me that like an old-fashioned record with too many scratches, Trump jumps erratically back and forth to several set pieces.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been up close watching an actor who hasn’t adequately memorized his or her lines. There’s a certain look in the eyes, part lost, part panicked, then relieved as there’s a moment of remembering — as his nose grows longer.
Let’s take a moment to examine some of the assertions that make an appearance day after day. From the April 2, 2020, Task Force Press Conference: “Donald Trump: I cut off China very early. And if I didn’t, we would have a chart that you wouldn’t believe. So how would I know to do that? How would I know to cut off Europe? I cut off Europe very early. I mean, you have to make a decision. People knew that some bad things were going on, and they got off to a late start. And some others got off to a late start also. But we cut off China. If we didn’t cut off China, we would have been in some big trouble. And we cut it off … And you know what? We cut it off way early…”
Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, dispenser of the Pinocchios, did some fact-checking: “In Trump’s telling, he took bold action, ahead of others. ‘When I did China, it had never been done before,’ he said. ‘I was the first one to do it.’ … The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 21 announced the first travel-related case of novel coronavirus in the United States. Trump unveiled his plan 10 days later, making the restrictions effective Feb. 2 …
“Trump barred non-U.S. citizens from traveling from China, but there were 11 exceptions, and Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were not included. U.S. citizens and permanent residents could still travel from China but were subject to screening and possible 14-day quarantine. Some flights were immediately suspended, but others continued for weeks, at the discretion of the airlines.
“Some analysts at the time predicted that Trump’s action would be ineffective at preventing the virus from taking hold in the United States. ‘All of the evidence we have indicates that travel restrictions and quarantines directed at individual countries are unlikely to keep the virus out of our borders,’ said Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, at a congressional hearing Feb. 5 …
“The New York Times calculated that at least 430,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China since Jan. 1, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after Trump imposed restrictions. Moreover, screening proceedings of travelers from China have been uneven and inconsistent, the Times said.
“In any case, the United States certainly was not the first country … Six countries imposed travel restrictions even before the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30. Another six announced travel restrictions that same day, followed by 11 countries (besides the United States) announcing restrictions Jan. 31 … By the time Trump’s restrictions took effect Feb. 2, an additional 15 countries had taken similar actions — and in some cases enacted even tougher bans.” (Emphasis added.)
In fact, the president has never admitted that he and his administration were slow to appreciate the dangers of COVID-19. Here’s an excerpt from his April 3, 2020, press briefing and a series of questions from Jim Acosta of CNN:
“Q: Mr. President … you have said nobody could have seen this pandemic coming, but, in fact, Secretary Azar, at a biodefense summit in April of 2019, said, ‘Of course, the thing that people ask, ‘What keeps you most up at night in the biodefense world?’ Pandemic flu, of course. I think everyone in this room probably shares that concern.’ Your own Health and Human Services Secretary was aware that this had the potential of being a very big problem around the world, a pandemic of this nature. Who dropped the ball?
The president: ‘Well, I always knew that pandemics are one of the worst things that could happen. There’s been nothing like this since probably 1917. That was the big one in Europe. It started actually here and went to Europe. Probably. I’ve heard about —
Q: You’ve also said nobody could see this coming.
The president: Excuse me. Wait a minute. Let me finish. I’ve heard about this for a long time — pandemics. You don’t want pandemics. And I don’t think he was talking about a specific pandemic. He was talking about the threat of a pandemic could happen. And it could happen. Most people thought it wouldn’t and most people didn’t understand the severity of it. This is very severe. What’s happened is very severe …
Q: But, Secretary Azar, if you were preparing for a pandemic, if this government were preparing for a pandemic, why is it we don’t have enough masks? Why is it we don’t have enough medical equipment in this country?
The president: Previous administrations gave us very little ammunition for the military and very little shelf space. Let me just tell you —
Q: But you’ve been president —
The president: ‘You know it —
Q: You’ve been President —
The president: You know the answer.
Q: — three or four years now.
The president: The previous administration, the shelves were empty. The shelves were empty.
Q: You had time to stock the shelves.
The president: So what you should do is speak to the people from the previous administration, Jim, and ask them that question, because —
Q: Mr. President, you’ve been in office —
The president: — the shelves were empty.
Q: — for almost four years.
The president: And you know what else? The military shelves were also empty. We had no ammunition, literally. And that was said by one of your favorite generals. ‘We have — sir, we have no ammunition.’ Guess what? We had very little medical supply also. All right. Go ahead, please …”
Journalists got to work discovering documents, talking to administration insiders, discovering discrepancies between what was said publically and what was known privately. Here is some of what was found.
Factcheck.org discovered: “More than once, President Donald Trump has falsely claimed that the federal stockpile of emergency medicine and supplies he inherited from his predecessor was an ‘empty shelf.’ While the government does not publicize all of the contents of the repository, at the time Trump took office, the Strategic National Stockpile, as it is formally known, reportedly contained vast amounts of materials that state and local health officials could use during an emergency, including vaccines, antiviral drugs, ventilators and protective gear for doctors and nurses.
“‘The SNS was definitely not an empty shell,’ Dr. Tara O’Toole, a former homeland security official during the Obama administration who is now executive vice president at the nonprofit strategic investment firm In-Q-Tel, told us in an email … NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce was allowed to visit one facility in June 2016 — only months before Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. In her article about the warehouse she toured, she described the shelves as being the opposite of bare. ‘A big American flag hangs from the ceiling, and shelves packed with stuff stand so tall that looking up makes me dizzy,’ Greenfieldboyce wrote.
On Jan. 22, 2020, the president said “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.”
But New York Times discovered and published this email from Jan. 28, 2020:
And this email: “‘Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad,’ a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, wrote on the night of Jan. 28 in an email to a group of public health experts scattered around the government and universities. ‘The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.’”
The Times put Mecher’s email in context: “A week after the first coronavirus case had been identified in the United States, and six long weeks before President Trump finally took aggressive action to confront the danger the nation was facing … Dr. Mecher was urging the upper ranks of the nation’s public health bureaucracy to wake up and prepare for the possibility of far more drastic action. “You guys made fun of me screaming to close the schools … Now I’m screaming, close the colleges and universities.”
Here is a partial look at the timeline.
The president on Feb. 2, 2020: “We pretty much shut it coming in from China.”
Feb. 25, 2020: “CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handing Coronavirus.”
Feb. 25, 2020: “I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away … They have studied it. They know very much, in fact, we’re very close to a vaccine.”
Feb. 26, 2020: “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
Feb. 26, 2020: “We’re going to be substantially down, not up.”
Feb. 27, 2020: “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Feb. 28, 2020: “We’re ordering a lot of supplies. We’re ordering a lot of uh elements that frankly we wouldn’t be ordering unless it was something like this. But we’re ordering lot of different elements of medical.”
March 2, 2020: “You take a solid flu vaccine, you don’t think that could have an impact, or much of an impact, on corona?”
March 2, 2020: “A lot of things are happening, a lot of very exciting things are happening and they’re happening very rapidly.”
March 4, 2020: “If we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better.”
March 5, 2020: “I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work.”
March 5, 2020: “The United States … has, as of now, only 129 cases … and 11 deaths. We are working very hard to keep these numbers as low as possible.”
March 6, 2020: “I think we’re doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down … a tremendous job at keeping it down.”
March 6, 2020: “Anybody right now, and yesterday, anybody that needs a test gets a test. They’re there. And the tests are beautiful … the tests are all perfect like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect. Right? This was not as perfect as that but pretty good.” (Emphasis added.)
March 6, 2020: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it … Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this? Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
March 6, 2020: “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
March 8, 2020: “We have a perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan at the White House for our attack on Coronavirus.”
March 9, 2020: “This blindsided the world.”
The Times article of April 11, 2020, made an attempt to explain the critical gap between reality and denial: “Unfolding as it did in the wake of his impeachment by the House and in the midst of his Senate trial, Mr. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the ‘Deep State’ — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives …
“The shortcomings of Mr. Trump’s performance have played out with remarkable transparency as part of his daily effort to dominate television screens and the national conversation. But dozens of interviews with current and former officials and a review of emails and other records revealed many previously unreported details and a fuller picture of the roots and extent of his halting response as the deadly virus spread:
- The National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received intelligence reports in early January predicting the spread of the virus to the United States, and within weeks was raising options like keeping Americans home from work and shutting down cities the size of Chicago. Mr. Trump would avoid such steps until March.
- Despite Mr. Trump’s denial weeks later, he was told at the time about a Jan. 29 memo produced by his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, laying out in striking detail the potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic: as many as half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.
- The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on Jan. 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks. The president, who was on Air Force One while traveling for appearances in the Midwest, responded that Mr. Azar was being alarmist.
- Azar publicly announced in February that the government was establishing a ‘surveillance’ system in five American cities to measure the spread of the virus and enable experts to project the next hot spots. It was delayed for weeks. The slow start of that plan, on top of the well-documented failures to develop the nation’s testing capacity, left administration officials with almost no insight into how rapidly the virus was spreading. ‘We were flying the plane with no instruments,’ one official said.
- By the third week in February, the administration’s top public health experts concluded they should recommend to Mr. Trump a new approach that would include warning the American people of the risks and urging steps like social distancing and staying home from work. But the White House focused instead on messaging and crucial additional weeks went by before their views were reluctantly accepted by the president — time when the virus spread largely unimpeded.”
The Times continued: “When Mr. Trump finally agreed in mid-March to recommend social distancing across the country, effectively bringing much of the economy to a halt, he seemed shellshocked and deflated to some of his closest associates. One described him as ‘subdued’ and ‘baffled’ by how the crisis had played out. An economy that he had wagered his re-election on was suddenly in shambles.
“He only regained his swagger, the associate said, from conducting his daily White House briefings, at which he often seeks to rewrite the history of the past several months. He declared at one point that he ‘felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,’ and insisted at another that he had to be a ‘cheerleader for the country,’ as if that explained why he failed to prepare the public for what was coming.”
Some more excellent journalism: On April 1. 2020, the Nation magazine reported on a remarkably pertinent Pentagon study that was conducted in January 2017: “Despite President Trump’s repeated assertions that the COVID-19 epidemic was ‘unforeseen’ and ‘came out of nowhere,’ the Pentagon was not just well aware of the threat of a novel influenza but even anticipated the consequent scarcity of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds …”
Back to the daily briefings: On April 5, 2020: “We have the best doctors, the best military leaders, and the best logistics professionals anywhere in the world. And we’re orchestrating a massive federal response unlike anything our country has ever seen or done. We’ve never done anything like this …
“Since last Sunday, cargo planes have delivered almost – listen to this – 300 million gloves, almost 8 million masks, and 3 million gowns. And many more fully loaded cargo planes are right now on the way. Three big ones landed today. And these supplies are being distributed directly to the hospitals and healthcare providers all across the nation so that that massive amount of material that we’re getting in is being delivered all over the country.”
Which would be great if it was accurate. It’s the “orchestrating” and “distributed directly” that’s in question. The problem is that rather than orchestrate a coordinated federal response with a coordinated purchasing policy and federal warehousing and distribution, several federal agencies are now competing with desperate states and cities. And the materials purchased by the federal government are not directly and immediately transferred to the states but redirected to the private market, which then fulfills orders by the desperate states.
The Washington Post on March 24 reported: “A mad scramble for masks, gowns and ventilators is pitting states against each other and driving up prices. Some hard-hit parts of the country are receiving fresh supplies of N95 masks, but others are still out of stock. Hospitals are requesting donations of masks and gloves from construction companies, nail salons and tattoo parlors, and considering using ventilators designed for large animals because they cannot find the kind made for people.
“The market for medical supplies has descended into chaos, according to state officials and health-care leaders. They are begging the federal government to use a wartime law to bring order and ensure the United States has the gear it needs to battle the coronavirus. So far, the Trump administration has declined.
“‘I can’t find any more equipment. It’s not a question of money,’ said New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose state is battling the nation’s worst outbreak. ‘We need the federal help and we need the federal help now …’
“His pleas are echoed by others, including the American Medical Association, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Biden, who have called on the Trump administration to use the Defense Production Act to order companies to mass produce medical supplies. The law, enacted during the Korean War, allows the government to require companies to manufacture certain goods and to pay them for it.
Although governors and hospital leaders welcome the many U.S. companies stepping forward to make masks and ventilators, they fear the voluntary efforts will be too scattershot without federal coordination …
“W. Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama, said in a phone interview Sunday that the response should be led by governors but directed and funded by the federal government. That includes a more coordinated process for buying and distributing supplies so that states and the federal government can stop trying to outbid one another, he said …
“Soaring demand and competitive bidding is driving prices up. Premier, a health-care company that purchases equipment and supplies for 4,000 acute-care hospitals, used to pay about 30 cents for an N95 mask but is now seeing prices between $3 and $15 per mask, Group Vice President Chaun Powell said in an interview.”
On April 5, the Associated Press analyzed federal purchase orders and found chaos and incompetence: “As the first alarms sounded in early January that an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China might ignite a global pandemic, the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment … federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers.
“By that time, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile … Now, three months into the crisis, that stockpile is nearly drained just as the numbers of patients needing critical care is surging. Some state and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks. ‘We basically wasted two months,’ Kathleen Sebelius, health and human services secretary during the Obama administration, told AP.
I am incredibly impressed by the work of journalists who bring light in this time of darkness. Let me leave you with this sad revelation from the Washington Post:
The COVID-19 consequences are all too real. Many people have died. And many more will die. For those of you who haven’t taken advantage of the Financial Times’ continuing COVID-19 coverage, here’s its graph from April 15, 2020:
“President Trump Campaign Event in North Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 28, 2020”
“Golf, handshakes and a Mar-a-Lago conga line: Squandered week highlights Trump’s lack of COVID-19 focus”
Gus Garcia-Roberts and Michael Braga, USA TODAY, April 10, 2020
“Trump’s claim that he imposed the first ‘China ban’”
Glenn Kessler April 7, 2020, Washington Post
“Press Conference: Donald Trump Holds the Daily Coronavirus Pandemic Briefing – April 2, 2020”
“Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing”
April 5, 2020
“Trump Falsely Claims He Inherited ‘Empty’ Stockpile”
D’Angelo Gore, April 3, 2020
“Scramble for medical equipment descends into chaos as U.S. states and hospitals compete for rare supplies”
Tony Romm, Aaron Gregg and Tom Hamburger
March 24, 2020, Washington Post
“U.S. ‘wasted’ months before preparing for virus pandemic”
Michael Biesecker, April 5, 2020, AP
“He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus”
Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael D. Shear, Mark Mazzetti and Julian E. Barnes, April 11, 2020, New York Times
“Exclusive: The Military Knew Years Ago That a Coronavirus Was Coming”
The Pentagon warned the White House about a shortage of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds in 2017 — but the Trump administration did nothing.
Ken Klippenstein. April 1, 2020, the Nation
“Navarro memos warning of mass coronavirus death circulated in January”
Jonathan Swan, Margaret Talev
April 7, 2020 Axios
USNORTHCOM BRANCH PLAN 3560
PANDEMIC INFLUENZA AND INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESPONSE
06 Jan. 2017
“Trump administration has many task forces — but still no plan for beating covid-19”
Ashley Parker, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey
April 11, 2020, Washington Post