“Even I am not prepared to say that and maybe I should, but it’s just inconceivable to me to have to state a proposition that the president of the United States is willfully trying to kill Americans,” Rice told me during an interview for my “Cape Up” podcast. “I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to believe that. But I do think he’s playing politics,” Rice said before spelling out the difference in Trump’s treatment of Illinois and Michigan vs. Kentucky and Oklahoma.
As an American, I have been horrified by the president’s response to the pandemic. Both The Post and the New York Times have detailed the “dysfunction” and “lapses in leadership” that have come to describe the horror of our lives today. Yet, every day, we are treated to a Trump-produced campaign rally masquerading as the daily coronavirus briefing where he happy-talks a disaster. His insistence that a pandemic of this magnitude was “an unforeseen problem” that “came from out of nowhere” is an outrage when you know what Rice knows.
“I had met, myself, with my successor, General Michael Flynn, on four occasions over 12 hours. I handed off over 100 briefing papers to him and shared with him the issues I thought were most salient and most important for him to grasp. Among them, the risk that we would face another pandemic,” Rice recounted. “The reality is, Jonathan, anybody who knows national security, anybody who knows global health, knows development issues, understood that we were not only inevitably going to face another global pandemic, but in fact, that the world was overdue.”
Rice said that the Obama administration’s experience with swine flu in 2009 followed by Ebola in 2014 and Zika in 2016 proved that “pandemic preparedness needed to be a top national security priority.” It was of such concern that Rice and her colleagues included a scenario on pandemic preparedness in a tabletop exercise with the incoming Trump team. Rice also said, “We left behind a 69-page playbook, which was sort of ‘Pandemic for Dummies.’ If you don’t know where to start, start here, and ask these questions and do these things.”
Judging by our lived reality, the dummies have prevailed in imposing their willful ignorance on the rest of us. “This administration was not interested in pandemics. It was not prepared for pandemics. We now know that even during the Trump administration there were lots of reports, lots of warnings,” said Rice. And then she walked through what a functioning federal government would have done.
Rather than moving immediately from very early January to do the things that we know we have to do, get in place the testing capacity, scale it up so that it’s widely available. Surge the purchase and the distribution of personal protective equipment, ventilators, masks, gloves, gowns, and get that to our hospital systems, build out a bed capacity, call back medical professionals. All these things that states and locals are now doing on the fly. These are the things that we know we needed to do and do at the outset. And so, they didn’t do that. They waited two months. It’s not the one month that the New York Times had a headline, ‘A Wasted Month,’ it was a wasted two months, Jonathan. And those two months have meant the difference between many tens of thousands of Americans dying who might otherwise not have died.
Rice also believes there should be a nationwide stay-at-home order because “when you do these shutdowns early and comprehensively, it makes a difference. It saves lives and it flattens the curve.” But Trump is resistant. Rice didn’t want to speculate about Trump’s motives. But she was characteristically unafraid to shred his actions.
“He has demonstrated utter lack of leadership, utter incompetence. And he’s been profoundly dishonest about the nature of the threat to the American people by downplaying it, by dismissing it, by comparing it to the flu. … He has misled the American people to such an extent that lives have been lost in the process,” responded Rice. “Whether that’s because he didn’t care or he was trying to downplay the problem and buoy his electoral prospects mistakenly, or whether it was to buck up the markets, or because he doesn’t care, I don’t know what it was. I just know that he has cost tens of thousands of American lives.”
In her book, “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,” Rice writes that a pandemic “was (and remains) among my biggest fears.” Now that the former national security adviser’s nightmare scenario is reality, I asked her if this is still the thing that keeps her up at night. Yes, it is.
“This is keeping me up at night because we have not begun to hit the top of the curve here. And our government continues to fail us every step of the way,” said Rice, before decrying Trump’s crowing that he will have done “a very good job” if between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans die from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Earlier in our conversation, Rice asked, “In what circle of hell is that a good outcome?”
“It’s not just their lack of preparedness, their disregard for the tools that we left them. It’s not just the two months they squandered in January and February. It’s not just the president’s lies and misrepresentations,” Rice told me. “It’s that today… they are not doing the things that they know are necessary to keep it to that extraordinarily high number.”
God help us, all.
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