In a way, Woodward’s book is almost reassuring. It shows that Trump was not entirely delusional. He actually realized that the coronavirus was far more threatening than the flu. He just chose to deceive the American public by playing down the disease at least 108 times. His explanation: He is “a cheerleader for this country,” and he didn’t want to cause “panic” or a “frenzy.”
That’s pretty rich given how hard he has worked to generate panic about exaggerated threats such as refugee “caravans” and antifa goon squads. Trump is more often a doomsayer than a cheerleader. On Thursday, for example, he tweeted: “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters.’ ”
So why lie to play down a genuine threat while hyping largely imaginary threats? That is the biggest mystery of Trump’s catastrophic covid-19 response. He would have been far better off leveling with the public. Not only would this have saved countless lives, it also might have saved the Trump presidency. But he just couldn’t break the mendacious habits of a lifetime. No doubt he imagined he could bluff and spin his way through the pandemic the way he had done with countless crises in the past, from corporate bankruptcies to his impeachment. He did not seem to realize that a virus could not be banished with happy talk.
Whatever Trump’s motivation, his falsehoods are criminal and inexcusable. On second thought, that he knew better actually makes it worse. Trump is like the captain of a ship who knows it is about to hit an iceberg but doesn’t tell the passengers to make for the lifeboats. That is an offense even more serious than simply falling asleep at the watch.
What makes Trump’s lies particularly pernicious is how they seep through the entire infrastructure of government like a corrosive acid, eating away at governmental capacity to respond to the real threats we face. When this president denies reality, so do all of his mini-Trumps. Here is White House trade adviser Peter Navarro speaking about the coronavirus on Feb. 24: “Nothing to worry about for the American people.” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Feb. 25: “We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on March 6: “It is being contained. Do you not think it is being contained?”
Most of the president’s men and women also joined him in touting quack cures such as hydroxychloroquine while denigrating what really works — mask-wearing and social distancing. Those who challenged Trump’s falsehoods were either demoted (Rick Bright at the Department of Health and Human Services) or simply sidelined (Anthony S. Fauci at the National Institutes of Health).
The same imperative to distort reality to the president’s liking is evident at the Department of Homeland Security, according to a whistleblower’s complaint from Brian Murphy, a former FBI agent who until recently was principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis. Murphy claims his superiors at DHS pressured him to modify intelligence estimates to falsely assert that “large numbers of KSTs [known or suspected terrorists] were entering the United States through the southwest border,” and to exaggerate violence from “ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups” while making the white-supremacist threat “appear less severe” than it actually is.
Most alarming of all, Murphy asserts that in mid-May he was instructed by acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf “to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.” Murphy says Wolf told him “these instructions specifically originated from White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.” On July 8, Murphy alleges, Wolf told him to hold an alarming notification about Russian election interference because it “made the President look bad.”
Falsifying intelligence estimates for political purposes is one of the worst offenses a president can commit, because it blinds our government to the real threats we face. But, if Murphy is to be believed, this became a routine practice at DHS. It was also, we now know, routine at the White House, where Trump and his subordinates lied in public about the conclusions they had reached in private about the pandemic.
Woodward and Murphy are actually telling two parts of the same story: how Trump’s lies have corrupted the government and endangered the country. Now the lies are unraveling, but Trump supporters have become so habituated to his doublethink that it may be too late for them to acknowledge reality.