In his inaugural address Jan. 20, 2017, President Donald Trump painted an unrecognizably dark picture of our country culminating with the bizarre declaration, "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."
Just over three years later, almost 100,000 people in the United States have died from the coronavirus outbreak and almost 39 million have had to file for unemployment, all on Trump's watch. Trump's incompetence and failure of leadership have ushered in an unprecedented public health crisis that continues to threaten the lives and livelihoods of countless Americans and has disproportionately impacted vulnerable communities.
Trump's dark inaugural assertion of "American carnage," it seems, was less an evidence-free indictment of his predecessor than a portentous claim about his own presidency. We are only now experiencing the American carnage Trump once grimly accused former President Barack Obama of overseeing — and it could have been avoided with preparation and leadership.
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As a senior policy adviser to an Obama administration Cabinet member, I attended part of the Jan. 13, 2017, transition exercise in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — which included a session focused on preparing the incoming Trump administration for how to respond as a government (rather than as a re-election campaign) to a pandemic. The meeting included at least 30 members of the incoming Cabinet and staff, alongside their Obama administration counterparts.
As has since been reported, the unclassified slides presented that day warned against allowing a shortage of "personal protective equipment and medical equipment, such as ventilators" to develop. And the final slide included an ominous warning: "In a pandemic scenario, days — and even hours — can matter. Smart decision-making should provide as much lead time as possible to prepare."
America had the lead time. Trump failed to lead.
Starting as early as April 2017 — less than three months after that meeting — experts publicly warned that high-level vacancies left the Trump administration unprepared for a global health crisis. Just over a year later, in May 2018, Trump dismantled the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense and pushed out its leader, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer.
Just 18 months after that, in November, the National Center for Medical Intelligence warned that a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China, could lead to a "cataclysmic event." This report was then presented multiple times to the Pentagon, where it appears to have been stalled. Starting in January, the information was included in the president's daily briefing multiple times — he now blames his briefer, a CIA analyst with three decades of experience, for downplaying the threat Jan. 23 — with little or no response from the Trump administration through March other than denial, disinformation and deflection.
According to Jeremy Konyndyk, the former head of the United States Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance — who helped write the 69-page "pandemic playbook" the Trump administration blatantly ignored — February, March and April were therefore wasted months in terms of stopping the pandemic or mitigating its damage.
Despite the repeated demands of governors to increase access to testing, the Trump administration failed to respond to this urgent need, just as it failed to capitalize on social distancing in March and April to control the spread of the virus. While state shelter-in-place provisions, which are now being rescinded, were enough to slow transmissions for the last month, they were not enough to prevent previously unfathomable numbers of infections and deaths from COVID-19.
And now states such as Maryland, where I live, are reporting dramatic spikes in the number of cases since reopening less than a week ago.
Yet, in a meeting at the White House on May 18, Trump tried to rationalize new infections in states that had lifted social distancing requirements by explaining "there is death on both sides" of reopenings, equating the loss of human life from the coronavirus to the economic impact of continued closures.
It's not the first time he's made a tone-deaf statement in support of the supposed economic benefits of a quick reopening, which he sees as crucial to his re-election. Even as state social distancing orders remained in effect and infection rates were spiking, Trump referred to armed and swastika-carrying anti-lockdown demonstrators in Michigan as "very good people," emboldening the extremists protesting stay-at-home orders. That came after tweets calling on them to "liberate" their state, which he issued even after a similar demonstration impeded access to a Lansing hospital, demonstrating the protesters' disregard for the potential loss of life.
Trump is now, quite literally, causing American carnage.
Of course, with a president who refuses to wear a mask in the presence of elderly World War II veterans (who are at higher risk of dying of the coronavirus if they contract it), who told Americans that we ought to be researching injecting and inhaling household disinfectants, and who claims to be taking a drug deemed unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration for prophylaxis against the coronavirus, it's clear that Trump is not prioritizing the Americans' lives — and perhaps not even his own life.
Instead, he's prioritizing his re-election, his wallet and the wallets of his donors, while politicizing the allocation of medical resources and desperately needed economic relief. And so, thanks to Trump's astounding failure of leadership, we are now living the American carnage he imagined on his first day of office in 2017 — and likely will for many more months to come.