But there’s a serious problem with this account. The facts already on the public record demonstrate that whatever desire Trump had to avert any panic was largely about doing what he perceived was in his own personal and political interests, not those of the nation or the American people.
Trump and his defenders have fixated on the word “panic” in this quote, which Trump gave to Bob Woodward on March 19:
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.
That came after Trump admitted on Feb. 7 to Woodward that he understood the coronavirus was airborne, making it particularly contagious, and even that “it’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” Trump conceded he knew how bad the threat was and then admitted to downplaying it.
Yet Trump’s defenders now insist his stated desire to avoid a “panic” demonstrates that he was operating from the belief that he had good reason to downplay the virus threat — and that in so doing, he was acting in the public interest.
“We don’t want to instill panic,” Trump told reporters Wednesday, in defending himself. “We don’t want to jump up and down and start shouting that we have a problem,” Trump continued, because this would “scare everybody.”
Similarly, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, asked about the new revelations and Trump’s own repeated refrain that the coronavirus will “go away,” responded by claiming that Trump had merely “expressed calmness” and sought to avoid “inciting fear.” Other defenders have pushed versions of the same nonsense.
But a look at the timeline before and after that admission to Woodward shows that even if Trump did want to avoid provoking “panic,” it was largely for self-absorbed reasons, not out of any discernible conception of what was good for the country.
The timeline is damning
In February, for instance, Trump did repeatedly rage over the idea that the coronavirus was creating a panic. But, crucially, his own public statements explicitly revealed that he saw the possibility of a panic largely through the prism of his own interests.
Throughout February, Trump was utterly obsessed with the impact that public news about the coronanvirus was having on the markets. And as Slate’s William Saletan demonstrated at the time, Trump openly cast the markets as inextricably linked to his own political fortunes, regularly suggesting efforts to use the coronavirus to rattle them were the work of political enemies out to tank him.
Indeed, Trump repeatedly raged at the media for deliberately trying to panic markets to harm him politically. Trump approvingly tweeted a media ally accusing CNN of trying “to stoke a national Coronavirus panic” as part of its “anti-Trump” agenda. He blasted the media for trying to make the coronavirus “look as bad as possible” and “panicking markets” to help Democrats.
Trump’s aversion to a “panic” was primarily resistance to something he thought would damage him.
Worse still, Trump’s obsession with panicking the markets — and harming his reelection chances — deeply hampered his governmental response to the coronavirus crisis.
In late February, after one of Trump’s most senior health officials publicly warned about the threat of the virus spreading, which Trump’s own officials wanted to do so the American people could protect themselves and each other, Trump privately raged because it “was scaring the stock markets,” as The Post reported.
Even into early March, Trump was still resisting pressure from senior officials to take big steps to halt the spread, such as making a full-throated call for major social distancing efforts and lockdowns, out of fear that it would harm the markets.
As he dug in, Trump regularly listened to counsel against such quarantining and restrictions from business leaders. Why? Because, as the New York Times reports, he was “always attuned to anything that could trigger a stock market decline or an economic slowdown that could hamper his reelection effort.”
Trump’s spin isn’t remotely exonerating
Even if you grant that Trump worried to some extent about panicking the public in addition to hurting the markets and his reelection hopes — which is highly unlikely to have weighed heavily on him in the least — this only incriminates him further.
The whole reason Trump’s own officials urged him to tell the full truth was so he’d use his presidential authority and megaphone to prep the American people for the excruciatingly difficult and self-sacrificing steps that would be needed to combat the virus and limit more loss of life.
He refused to do that for weeks and weeks. And that helped allow the virus to rampage out of control here, ironically leading to an even worse economic lockdown than might otherwise have been necessary.
Trump’s stated desire to avoid what he called a “panic” isn’t exonerating in the least. In yet another wretched perversity, this excuse reflects a harsh light right back on the same depravity, malevolence and incompetence that has characterized his mishandling of the pandemic all along, with unthinkable consequences.
Even in seeking to avoid this panic, Trump was largely subverting the national interest to his own. And as we now know, he did this regardless of the immense human toll he fully understood it would all but certainly take.