For the last four years, President Donald Trump has been enthusiastically showing us exactly who he is. But now we are seeing the full extent of the broken moral compass of the White House that he has molded in his own image.
It's easy to see Trump's failure to confront the outbreak of the coronavirus earlier this year as a case study in gross incompetence, but a recent report in Vanity Fair suggests that it was also something much worse.
Now we are seeing the full extent of the broken moral compass of the White House that he has molded in his own image.
As the pandemic tore through Northeastern states this spring, including New York and New Jersey, Trump frequently promised to protect the country, while also downplaying the severity of the outbreak. Instead of relentlessly urging states to take the virus seriously, he spent quite a bit of valuable time spreading misinformation about possible miracle cures. Trump's early efforts to minimize the severity of the outbreak, Vanity Fair alleges, "were soon amplified by Republican elected officials and right-wing media figures."
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Meanwhile, Trump entrusted much of the federal response to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, despite Kushner's manifest lack of credentials, knowledge or experience. It fell to Kushner and his group to develop a plan for nationwide testing.
Nothing ever came of the effort, and we are living through the consequences now. But what if the failure involved more than mere ineptitude?
From the beginning, Trump set the tone. In the spring, when a nationwide testing regimen was still possible, the president publicly worried about the stock market, the economy and his political standing. He seized on any hint that the pandemic would simply go away. He was encouraged by Dr. Deborah Birx, who was a source of relentless optimism inside the White House walls.
Trump has made no secret of his ambivalence about testing. "When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people," Trump said in June at an ill-timed rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "You're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"
The White House tried to claim that Trump was joking. But the account in Vanity Fair has the ring of authenticity when it reports that this spring, "the prospect of launching a large-scale national plan was losing favor, said one public health expert in frequent contact with the White House's official coronavirus task force."
But then comes this stunning passage:
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner's team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. "The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy," said the expert.
It's easy to get numbed by this presidency's cascade of awfulness, but, even by Trumpian standards, the amorality of such a suggestion is breathtaking. If the account is true, then the failure to test was not a matter of incompetence but one of choice. As the death toll rose, Trump could escape responsibility, shift the political blame onto Democrats and use the issue to help win re-election.
Not surprisingly, the White House denies that such calculations were ever made. "The article is completely incorrect in its assertion that any testing was stopped for political or other reasons," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
And yet, this wouldn't be the first time that Trump has encouraged dangerous partisan politics.
Back in May, Trump told Fox News that coronavirus emergency funding bills would be unfair to more conservative states. "It's not fair to the Republicans, because all the states that need help, they're run by Democrats in every case," he said. (In fact, three of the four states that rely the most on federal funding would be considered red states.)
As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pleaded for resources and ventilators and thousands of New Yorkers sickened and died, Trump delayed.
We also know Trump actively encouraged protests by Trump-friendly right-wing groups against Democratic governors who had imposed lockdown measures. He seemed to relish turning the fight against the pandemic into a culture war. In mid-April, he lashed out on Twitter, writing in all caps "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" and "LIBERATE MINNESOTA," followed by a similar attack on the Democratic governor of Virginia: "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"
The strategy backfired badly. Ignoring the need for more tests was not, after all, "an effective political strategy."
Birx, too, now admits that the pandemic has reached a "new phase." The disease has spread from blue states to red ones, moving from urban to rural areas and into the heart of Trump's own base. Not surprisingly, his poll numbers have crumbled.
So we are left with a president who is flailing, tweeting out conspiracy theories and misinformation, wallowing in self-pity and suggesting an illegal delay in the November election.
But the real consequence of Trump's moral failure isn't political. More than 157,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and we're nowhere near the end of even the first wave of deaths..
Historians will puzzle over how we got to this place, but we are already getting a chilling glimpse.