“The most dangerous people around the president are overconfident idiots,” said Jared Kushner to Bob Woodward, in just-released audiotapes of conversations the two had in April and May.

Unfortunately, this was not a sudden flash of self-awareness for the president’s son-in-law. It was a complaint that public health experts had had too much influence over the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, a state of affairs Kushner said had been corrected.

Kushner’s comments reveal something important about both him and the president. We know their handling the pandemic was dictated by politics, and that’s a big part of the reason it was such an unmitigated disaster.

But even more infuriating is that it was dictated by bad politics.

They could have done the right thing for the wrong reasons, taking steps that would save lives solely to benefit President Trump’s reelection campaign. That would have been fine; if you pulled my family from a burning car, I wouldn’t care if you did it because you thought getting on the news would be a good opportunity to promote your line of exercise videos.

Instead, they did the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. They minimized the pandemic and undermined efforts to contain it because they thought doing so would be a political gold mine. And this has all but guaranteed Trump’s defeat.

In the tapes, Kushner explains why the administration never developed a national testing strategy, and why Trump made a point of attacking governors who moved aggressively to limit the social interactions that would spread the virus in their states. This is from a conversation on April 18:

"The states have to own the testing," Kushner said. "The federal government should not own the testing. And the federal government should not own kind of the rules. It's got to be up to the governors, because that's the way the federalist system works."
He went on: “But the President also is very smart politically with the way he did that fight with the governors to basically say, no, no, no, no, I own the opening. Because again, the opening is going to be very popular. People want this country open. But if it opens in the wrong way, the question will be, did the governors follow the guidelines we set out or not?”

Let’s remember that all along, most Americans have been willing to endure the difficulty of stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and social distancing because they understood that they were necessary to contain the virus. But Kushner and Trump thought it was important to start a fight with governors so the president could “own the opening,” because “the opening is going to be very popular.”

The result was that Trump politicized every public health measure necessary to control the virus, convincing millions of his supporters that the way to show their loyalty to him was to refuse to wear a mask, gather together in groups to breathe the same air and complain about how their “freedom” was under assault.

Which has made the pandemic incalculably worse.

But Trump and Kushner thought they were being so shrewd and so clever. Such a couple of political geniuses. Look at us, playing four-dimensional chess!

I would remind you that today, the government’s actual experts have been pushed aside, and the administration’s pandemic response is being overseen by a radiologist with no training in epidemiology or public health, who has a long history of peddling misinformation on the pandemic and who got the job because Trump saw him on Fox News.

So even now, after all that has happened, the White House is uninterested in actually stopping the pandemic. They’ve all but given up; last weekend, Trump’s chief of staff said we should just wait for vaccines and treatments.

These taped conversations happened because the president told Kushner to speak to Woodward. “Very capable guy, Jared,” Trump told Woodward afterward. “You can’t get people like this. One smart cookie.”

What extraordinary good fortune that Trump located such hard-to-find brilliance in his very own family.

Here’s what’s so remarkable: Back when Trump first learned about the coronavirus in January, the simplest calculation would have been the most effective, in terms of both saving lives and saving his political skin.

It would have gone as follows: This pandemic could be terrible (we know Trump knew this, from previously released conversations with Woodward). If a lot of Americans die, that will be bad for my reelection, not only because of the deaths themselves but also because of the potential harm to the economy. Therefore, the smart thing is to do everything necessary to contain the virus. It will be critical to get all Americans to unite in the effort, because its success depends on their participation. If it works, I’ll get the credit and grateful voters will return me to office.

But that’s not what Trump did. He and Kushner thought they could outsmart the pandemic with public relations, by denying it was a problem and trying to “own the opening.”

Now, not only is Trump headed for likely defeat, but at least 226,000 Americans are dead, millions may have long-term effects from covid-19, and millions more have lost their jobs.

And these people still think they’re the clever ones.

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