The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ​​Trump’s lies about the pandemic were a grave dereliction of duty

President Trump at the White House on Aug. 31. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP was told by advisers on Jan. 28 that he was facing the most formidable national security threat of his presidency with the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, the danger was already evident in Wuhan. The grave warning to Mr. Trump, as described by Post associate editor Bob Woodward in his new book, “Rage,” made a strong impression on him, as he revealed to Mr. Woodward at the time. What is astounding and indefensible is that in the months that followed, Mr. Trump willfully deceived the nation about the seriousness of the threat.

Mr. Woodward’s recorded conversations with the president expose a grave dereliction of duty. This was no casual deceit, no singular slip of the tongue, but a purposeful and repeated falsehood, by Mr. Trump’s own admission to Mr. Woodward on March 19. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” The cost has been about 190,000 dead so far in the United States, and millions sickened, many seriously.

How, having been advised that the coronavirus pandemic had the potential to rival the great influenza pandemic a century ago, could Mr. Trump have told the nation in good conscience on Feb. 25, “I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away”? Or Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” In fact, as he told Mr. Woodward on Feb. 7, he knew the virus was transmissible through the air, that it was “deadly stuff,” “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” But he said to the public June 20, “Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu, what difference?” He knew the answer.

[Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

Mr. Trump’s deception paralleled his catastrophic pandemic response. The president who told Mr. Woodward that “you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed” was tardy and fumbling in coming up with face masks and other essential personal protective equipment and negligent in galvanizing a federal response. Then he walked away, turning matters over to the states and irresponsibly demanding a premature opening in the spring.

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Mr. Trump at first praised China’s leader Xi Jinping for his handling of the crisis, then charged that China misled the world about the virus. There is no question, as we have pointed out, that China’s closed political system attempted to cover up the Wuhan outbreak. But by engaging in a months-long deception of his own, Mr. Trump forfeits the moral standing to call it out.

His explanation that he hoped to avoid “panic” may reflect Mr. Trump’s fear that the truth would sink the economy and his own political fortunes. It is a sad reality that Mr. Trump often cannot see beyond his own needs. His response to the pandemic has been more like that of a circus barker rather than that of a president devoted to stewardship of the nation. The American people would have welcomed transparent, honest information about a looming disaster. Instead, they got lies and fantasy.

Read more:

Ann Telnaes cartoon: Trump lied and lots of people died

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

Jennifer Rubin: Biden’s campaign goes full throttle: Trump lied, people died

Max Boot: That Trump knew better makes his misinformation even worse

Greg Sargent: There’s a big hole in Trump’s frantic spin about the Woodward revelations

Gary Abernathy: Americans should be able to question everything — including covid-19 guidelines

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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