Former President Donald Trump reportedly floated the idea of sending COVID-positive Americans to Guantánamo Bay during the first months of the pandemic, thinking the detention center could serve as a quasi-quarantine to stop the spread of the virus.
"Don't we have an island that we own?" Trump asked during a sit-down with officials in the Situation Room back in February of last year.
"What about Guantánamo?" he asked.
"We import goods," he continued lecturing his staff. "We are not going to import a virus!"
Trump's aides, apparently stunned by the suggestion, quickly "scuttled" the idea over fears that the move would be met with heavy backlash. The United States operates both the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and the controversial detention center that was first opened back in 2002 just following the September 11 attacks. Since then, roughly 780 suspected terrorists have been held at the center in extremely austere living conditions. The camp has been the subject of intense public scrutiny over the years, namely for subjecting its inmates to "enhanced interrogation techniques" – a euphemism for systematic torture. Back in 2018, Trump signed an executive order that ensured the prison would stay open, bandying the claim that "torture works," despite longstanding evidence to the contrary.
The exchange, first broken by The Washington Post, is set to be featured in the forthcoming book, "Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History," by Post journalists Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta. Abutaleb and Paletta, who interviewed 180 people for their book, including several White House senior staff members and government health officials, detail a number of chaotic episodes in which the Trump administration failed to grapple with the scope of the pandemic.
In one instance, Trump openly talked about the coronavirus outbreak in terms of his re-election prospects.
"Testing is killing me!" Trump reportedly yelled over a phone call to the then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar back in March. "I'm going to lose the election because of testing! What idiot had the federal government do testing?" he asked, apparently forgetting or unaware that he put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of the federal response.
The book also noted that Trump repeatedly struck down the advice of his administration's top health officials, like Robert Kadlec, the then-HHS emergency preparedness chief, and U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci. For instance, after Kadlec ordered 600 million masks to the U.S., telling Kushner they would not be arriving until June, Trump's son-in-law reportedly threw his pen against the wall and said: "You f---ing moron. We'll all be dead by June."
Axios reported on an excerpt from the book that details how Trump wished death via COVID upon his former national security adviser John Bolton:
At one meeting several months [before Trump got sick], NEC director Larry Kudlow had stifled a cough. The room had frozen.. … Trump had waved his hands in front of his face, as if to jokingly ward off any flying virus particles, and then cracked a smile. "I was just kidding," he'd said. "Larry will never get COVID. He will defeat it with his optimism." … "John Bolton," he had said … "Hopefully COVID takes out John."
In another instance, Marc Short, the chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence, complained that the president was in fact overreacting to guidance from his health officials. Short, who was tasked with reviewing the political and economic implications of the administration's response, reportedly pushed back on an HHS effort to distribute free masks to every American household as the pandemic was ramping up, citing fears that they looked like "underwear on your face."
Despite the administration's seeming dictatorial approach to the pandemic, the book ultimately notes that "no one was in charge of the response."
"Was it Birx, the task force coordinator? Was it Pence, head of the task force? Was it Trump, the boss? Was it Kushner, running the shadow task force until he wasn't? Was it Marc Short or Mark Meadows, often at odds, rarely in sync?" the authors ask. "Ultimately, there was no accountability, and the response was rudderless."