“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”“This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis. … Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said.
“Play it down,” in this case, means lie. He promised Americans the virus would disappear like magic. He argued covid-19 is akin to the flu. He insisted it was safe for governors to reopen their economies despite unacceptably high rates of infection and the absence of mask mandates. These claims were false, and worse, he knew they were false.
When the president deliberately lies to the American people — as multiple presidents during the Vietnam War did (as we learned from the Pentagon Papers) — and many Americans die as a result, even loyal members of his own party must condemn him and demand he step away. His actions cost critical time, prevented earlier lockdowns and provided a false sense of security to vulnerable people. In all likelihood, tens of thousands of dead Americans would be alive today if he had acted with minimal competence and honesty.
This situation is not unlike Trump’s impeachment hearings. Overwhelming evidence, including the president’s own words documented in the rough transcript of the July 25, 2019, call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, demonstrated that Trump had betrayed the United States by extorting an ally at war with Russia for his own electoral benefit. Senate Republicans are not stupid; they merely refused to acknowledge what was before their eyes.
Now, we have similar malfeasance — precisely the sort of noncriminal but impeachable behavior that the impeachment clause is designed to uncover. Once again, Republicans will claim up is down and night is day. They will refuse to accept Trump’s own words confessing to a deception that cost thousands of American lives. They will not call for his resignation or call for him to withdraw from the election. They would rather continue to support a president demonstrably unfit than risk the wrath of Trump and his cult, just as they overlooked the threat to the lives of Ukrainians.
This remains true, even though in this case the victims have been Americans, and that thousands — multiples of the death count from 9/11 — have died even though simple precautions could have spared them. Imagine a president fully aware of a Category 5 hurricane near certain to hit a seaside community but who tells the residents, “No big deal. Don’t listen to the experts telling you to evacuate.” Surely, one would find him morally if not legally culpable for the deaths of anyone who made the mistake of listening to him. Covid-19 should be no different.
Appearing in Michigan, former vice president and Democratic nominee Joe Biden excoriated Trump. “The president of the United States has admitted on tape, in February, that he knew,” Biden said. "He knew how deadly it was. … He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people.” Biden called it a “life and death betrayal of the American people.”
In his memorable summation at the impeachment trial, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) declared, “History will not be kind to Donald Trump. If you find that the House has proved its case, and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history.” Republicans did not care. Now that Americans’ lives have been sacrificed at the altar of Trump’s ego, Republicans face another hinge moment: say nothing and join Trump in the dumpster of history, or speak up, call for his resignation and recapture a modicum of respect. Sadly, there is little doubt they will choose the former.