American carnage: What we are now learning about Trump's nightmarish mishandling of COVID

Despite his desire to be seen as the man who single-handedly created the vaccines, Trump just got people killed

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 30, 2021 10:01AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and vaccines (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and vaccines (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There are a lot of books coming out over the next few months that chronicled the final days of the Trump administration and it's pretty clear there are a lot of stories to tell. Of course, there is also a burning desire on the part of some members of Trump's entourage to buff up their severely tarnished reputations.

Michael Wolff of "Fire and Fury" fame has a new book coming out about the post-election period called "Landslide" that sounds as though it will be as lurid and gossipy as his previous Trump book. ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl's book called "Betrayal" (which I referenced in this piece about Bill Barr on Monday) appears to take a look at the same period as another new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender called "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost." It makes sense that there would be a number of books about the election, Trump's Big Lie and the subsequent nsurrection. The assault on democracy is the biggest political story of our time and it's still unfolding.

But I think the most serious story of the Trump administration and granted, it's hard to choose, has to be the massive, overwhelming failure to deal with the COVID pandemic that's killed over 600,000 people and counting. I still can't quite wrap my mind around that number or the fact that the leadership of the United States of America was so inept. According to yet another new book, aptly entitled "Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History," it was all actually much worse than we even thought.

The authors, Washington Post reporters Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, tell the coronavirus story from the perspective of the science advisers as well as the political people around Trump who were desperately trying to get him to take the problem seriously. We knew from Bob Woodward's earlier reporting that Trump had consciously made the decision to "downplay" the virus, ostensibly to keep people from panicking. Nobody really believed that, of course. It was obvious that he was "downplaying" the virus because he was afraid that the stock market would panic and that the ensuring economic turmoil would cost him the election. It seemingly never even occurred to him that mass deaths might be a bigger drag on his campaign.

The earliest unforgettable moment in the saga was the day when Trump went down to the CDC and bragged that everyone there was so impressed by his grasp of the complexities that perhaps he should have been a scientist instead of a president. And he made the comment that would guide the entire response from that point forward:

According to "Nightmare Scenario" Trump was so upset by the idea that these people would "double his numbers" that he asked his staff if there wasn't "an island we own" that we could send them to and he asked more than once about the possibility of sending them to Guantánamo. The staff finally got the idea scuttled but because they were all just as shallow and self-serving as he was, they did it not because it was grotesquely inhumane but because they were "worried about a backlash over quarantining American tourists on the same Caribbean base where the United States holds terrorism suspects." They had a point. Sending sick old people to a terrorist prison camp is pretty bad optics.

The "numbers" continued to anger Trump. He demanded that the officials who allowed the cruise passengers into the US be fired (it didn't happen) and when he said at his infamous Tulsa Oklahoma rally back in June of 2020, "when you do testing to that extent, you're gonna find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please" — he was not joking. The book quotes Trump having a tantrum over the phone to Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar, saying "Testing is killing me! I'm going to lose the election because of testing! What idiot had the federal government do testing?" (Azar replied, hilariously, "Uh, do you mean Jared?")

This response was a trainwreck in every way, mostly because of Trump's ignorance which made his decisions erratic and ineffectual, which I suspect also led to the magical thinking that had him demanding that everyone be a cheerleader and if you just tell people that everything is fine, it will be. He's quoted as saying to his team, "I am sick and tired of how negative you all are. . . . I spend half of my day responding to what Tony Fauci has to say, and I'm the president of the United States!" He told Dr. Deborah Birx, "Every time you talk, I get depressed. You have to stop that."

Perhaps the biggest revelation in this book is the fact that Trump was much, much sicker from COVID than we knew. His doctors were seriously afraid he was going to die and pushed the FDA to break all the rules to get him the experimental drugs that might save him. As we know, they did that and pumped him full of steroids and he recovered quite quickly. But in one of the more eye-rolling moments in this story, apparently, some of the advisers like CDC Director Robert Redfield, assumed his very close brush with death would automatically force him to take the COVID protocols more seriously and go out and tell people about his own experience in order to convince them to do the same. That's just laughable. It would mean he had to admit he was wrong and that's impossible. You'll recall that he defiantly ripped off his mask when he returned to the White House and then made a video telling everyone to go out and live their lives. He promised that he was going to make those experimental drugs available for free to everyone. That didn't happen, although he did arrange for his cronies Chris Christie and Ben Carson to get them.

This book reinforces the story that we already knew which is that the death toll in the U.S. from the pandemic is so high largely because the president of the United States at the time was an incompetent narcissist who was incapable of handling the crisis. So instead he said it was all bad press and poor optics and tried to happy talk his way out of it. It ended up killing people. A lot of people. Despite his desire to be seen as the man who single-handedly created the vaccines and saved the world, his followers heard him "downplay" the virus and they believed him. Now many of them are refusing to get the shots and Trump's American carnage continues to this day. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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