The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stunning new disclosures blow huge holes in Trump’s Potemkin facade

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden slammed President Trump on Sept. 9 after a recording showed Trump intentionally downplayed the threat of coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump’s argument for reelection has two fundamental pillars. First, his handling of the pandemic was uniformly stupendous, vanquished the coronavirus to the point where it’s largely behind us and revealed that he has cared deeply about its victims all along.

Second, now that pandemic has been largely crushed, the most dire threat to ordinary Americans’ lives and communities is a terrifying specter of organized left-wing political violence that threatens civil collapse, and only Trump can stop it.

A host of new revelations — some involving Trump’s early understanding of the coronavirus threat, and others concerning his efforts to fabricate a leftist domestic terrorist menace — have blown up this multifaceted Potemkin facade.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The new revelations also illustrate in stark new detail just how corruptly Trump and his cronies have manipulated the levers of government to make all those illusions appear as truths.

We begin with the explosive disclosures in Post associate editor Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump administration. With the U.S. death toll from covid-19 now approaching 200,000, Woodward’s conversations with Trump — all of which are on tape — reveal that the president knew all along how bad the pandemic would be.

This is what Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7:

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. … This is more deadly. This is 5 percent vs. 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know, so this is deadly stuff.

So to be clear, on Feb. 7 — when there were only 11 confirmed cases of covid-19 in the United States — Trump both emphasized the danger of the virus being passed through the air and explicitly declared he understood it was far more deadly than the flu.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Only one month later, on March 9, Trump dismissively compared the coronavirus with flu, claiming flu kills tens of thousands annually and that “life & the economy go on.” Trump downplayed the virus and said it was under control numerous times throughout February and March and beyond.

Then on March 19, Trump told Woodward this:

Well I think Bob, really to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

Trump admitted he knew the pandemic was worse than he said publicly, and that he deliberately minimized it to avoid panic. Remember, it has already been reported that the “panic” he feared was spooking the markets because that threatened his reelection.

Even if a leader might in certain circumstances be justified in holding back information to avoid a panic, this was not one of those circumstances. In this case, there were very specific measures that we needed Americans to take to limit the virus’s spread, including social distancing, avoiding large indoor gatherings and wearing masks.

Every time the president said the pandemic wasn’t serious, he persuaded people not to take those measures. Not only that, he actively discouraged people from taking them, cheering on protests of lockdown orders in Democratic-controlled state capitals. He did this with the full knowledge that it would worsen the pandemic, leading to more deaths.

The new whistleblower complaint

Now on to the second revelation: House Democrats just released a complaint from a new whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security. It makes a series of extraordinary charges about senior DHS officials seeking to manipulate intelligence to boost Trump politically.

The complaint from the whistleblower, Brian Murphy, a senior official at DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, claims intense pressure was brought to bear to hype the threat of leftist violence. The complaint says two top DHS officials — acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf and deputy Ken Cuccinelli — halted the distribution of a Homeland Threat Assessment because of how it “would reflect upon President Trump.”

“Two sections were specifically labeled as concerns: White Supremacy and Russian influence in the United States,” the complaint continues.

On Russian influence, the complaint says, Wolf ordered Murphy in May 2020 to report on efforts by China and Iran to interfere in our election, and to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference.”

Incredibly, the complaint says Murphy “would not comply with these instructions, as doing so would put the country in substantial and specific danger.”

The hyping of China and Iran seemed designed to false-equivalence away Russian interference, as Trump wants. Notably, we’ve already seen previous intelligence reports on foreign interference play this same deception game.

On white supremacy, the complaint describes discussions in May and June of 2020 with Cuccinelli about the DHS threat assessment at which this happened:

Mr. Cuccinelli stated that Mr. Murphy needed to specifically modify the section on White Supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent “left-wing” groups. Mr. Murphy declined to make the requested modifications, and informed Mr. Cuccinelli that it would constitute censorship of analysis and the improper administration of an intelligence program.

That is simply remarkable — both in its downplaying of the right wing extremist threat and in its hyping of a leftist one.

Now remember that many of Trump’s top national security officials — including Attorney General William P. Barr, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and acting Customs and Border Protection chief Mark Morgan — have made public statements hyping the notion of a left-wing domestic terror threat.

Wolf, for his part, sent DHS enforcement officers to Portland, Ore., in defiance of local officials, plainly to create the authoritarian TV imagery that Trump felt cheated out of when he didn’t get to send troops into U.S. cities.

We know Trump thought this imagery would also help his reelection campaign, because it spent $20 million on ads hyping this line. Much of his convention was devoted to manufacturing illusions of an active, far-reaching and organized leftist domestic extremist threat.

Now we’re learning that intelligence may have been actively perverted to support this narrative in a manner that prompted a whistleblower to repeatedly object — and now to come forward.

All this comes as Barr is set to release a review of the origins of the Russia investigation that could discredit its findings, facilitating another round of Russian sabotage. Meanwhile, Trump’s intelligence officials are no longer providing in-person briefings on that sabotage, limiting members of Congress’s understanding about what Russia is doing and further easing their ability to meddle in our election.

Democrats will simply have to do more, as strategist Simon Rosenberg has urged, to educate the public about all this manipulation, to lay the groundwork to communicate the reality of what is an ongoing electoral “crime spree” to voters when it goes full throttle in November.

The big story here is that layer after layer of concealment keeps getting peeled back, revealing the degree to which the entire government has been corrupted and placed at the disposal of Trump’s reelection campaign, all to prop up his Potemkin narratives and even possibly to invalidate untold mail votes.

Every time we think we’ve penetrated through to the very worst of this corruption, another layer gets peeled back, revealing still more. One shudders to think what Trump’s cabal has in store over the next two months.

Watch the latest Opinions video:

NFL wide receiver Kenny Stills and sports broadcaster Bob Costas say athletes once vilified for protesting police brutality will be viewed kindly by history. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s unforgivable sin: His covid-19 lies killed Americans

Karen Tumulty: What Bob Woodward’s book tells us about Trump

Marc A. Thiessen: Kamala Harris has no business casting doubt on a pre-election vaccine

Greg Sargent: Trump just said the corrupt part out loud — with a bullhorn

Jennifer Rubin: The latest dumb Republican talking point on covid-19