We know now that this wasn’t just Trump being buffoonish and engaging in magical thinking. It was conscious deception. Publicly, Trump kept insisting that the virus would disappear. Privately, he told Woodward: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Of course, Trump usually loves creating panic — about immigrants, about antifa, about low-income people invading the suburbs. But there is one place he wants to maintain tranquility — in the financial markets. “Just stay calm, it will go away,” he said on March 10. “We want to protect our shipping industry, our cruise industry, cruise ships, we want to protect our airline industry.” He added, “A lot of good things are going to happen. The consumer is ready.”
And so Trump lied to the country about the calamity that would soon overtake it. His administration didn’t ramp up a national testing or contact-tracing program. He and his supporters pressured states to open up prematurely. A July Pew poll found that only 46 percent of Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party considered the coronavirus a major threat to public health, compared with 85 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Trump could have made Republicans take the virus seriously. He chose not to.
Not long after attending the president’s June rally in Tulsa, Okla., the former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain died of Covid-19. In August, whoever is maintaining Cain’s Twitter account tweeted, “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.” It was Trump who made such a cultish commitment to denying the lethality of Covid-19 into a sign of loyalty. And all the time, he knew better.
Trump supporters may not care that their president has knowingly endangered them, withholding potentially lifesaving information that he readily confided to an elite Washington journalist. But that doesn’t change the importance of what Woodward has captured on tape. It’s now clear that just because Trump is lying to us, that doesn’t mean he’s lying to himself.
Trump’s lies sabotaged efforts to contain the coronavirus, almost certainly leading to many more deaths than it would have caused under a minimally competent and non-sociopathic leader. On Sept. 9, there were 1,176 coronavirus deaths in the United States. In Canada, there were two.
When someone’s actions lead to the death of another, we evaluate that person’s intent and state of mind in order to assign the right measure of blame. When a president’s actions lead to the deaths of thousands, we should do the same.