It was as Orwellian a ploy as any Americans have seen in the past four years: a president who’s running for re-election interfering with an agency that’s supposed to be apolitical, in service of a campaign promise that no credible expert thinks is achievable — and then accusing that same agency of partisanship. In any other administration, it would be a major scandal. Under Mr. Trump’s leadership, it has become commonplace.
The most shameful of all Mr. Trump’s meddling has been at the C.D.C., an agency designed to confront exactly the kind of pandemic America is now facing. Political appointees have prevented scientists at the agency from publishing a range of crucial guidelines and edicts meant to shepherd the nation through the pandemic. As a result, decisions across the country about school openings and closings, testing and mask-wearing have been muddy and confused, too often determined by political calculus instead of evidence.
The C.D.C.’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, has repeatedly walked back statements that counter the president’s own sunny assessment of the pandemic. Other scientists at the agency have been muzzled altogether — holding few news conferences and giving almost no talks or interviews in the nine months since the coronavirus first reached American shores. Morale at the agency has reached a low point, with many career civil servants there telling The Times that they might resign if Mr. Trump wins re-election, and others speculating that the C.D.C.’s ability to function at all, in this pandemic or the next, is in serious jeopardy.
The most immediate impacts of these machinations are plain to see. Pollution is up, fines for polluters are down, carbon emissions have risen and are poised to rise further. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, and millions of livelihoods destroyed, by a pandemic that could have been contained. The nation’s standing in the wider world, and public trust here at home, have been eroded almost beyond recognition.
The longer-term impacts will be equally dire. Consider a future in which the empirical truths ferreted out by doctors, scientists and engineers no longer have currency because there is no one left to act on them. Real medicine and snake oil are sold on the same shelf, with no good way to tell the two apart. Vaccines are developed, but even the most pro-science families don’t trust them enough to make use of them. We resign ourselves to the lead in our water, the pesticides in our food and the toxins in our baby bottles because we know that no one will resolve these crises in our favor. Lies and shrugs become the official response to any disease that threatens us.
Some of these things are already beginning to happen. Agencies that use science to protect human health have long been plagued by a lack of funding and too much political interference. But a world in which these agencies become fully ornamental would be dangerously different than the world we currently inhabit.
It’s hard to say what chance science or civics have against so foolish and self-serving a commander in chief. But for now, at least, there is still cause for hope. Earlier this month, the F.D.A. updated its criteria for emergency authorization of a coronavirus vaccine, against Mr. Trump’s stated wishes. After a brief standoff, the administration quietly backed off its opposition to the new guidelines, which should make it all but impossible for the president to rush a product through in the next few weeks.