Who’s responsible for America’s disastrous mismanagement of COVID-19? Four months ago, when the U.S. death toll was around 160,000, I outlined President Donald Trump’s role in the catastrophe. Since then, the body count has nearly doubled. A new report, published this weekend in the Washington Post, adds to the incriminating evidence. It details multiple incidents of negligence and malfeasance, attributed by the Post’s sources to specific administration officials. Each of these incidents deserves further investigation. Here’s what the Post found on the alleged culprits.
1. Trump. The president’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, surveyed swing states in July and found decisive support for mask mandates. A Trump campaign memo noted that most Republicans supported “mandatory masks at least indoors when in public.” The memo said voters favored the idea of Trump “issuing an executive order mandating the use of masks in public places.” The Post says that based on these findings, Fabrizio, Jared Kushner, and then–Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale “urged Trump to model good behavior by wearing a mask, and to encourage his supporters to do so.” But Trump refused. A campaign adviser says Trump listened, but “the argument just didn’t move him.”
2. Stephen Miller. One reason for Trump’s mask refusal—and for his repeated criticism of masks, which sabotaged efforts to promote their use—was contrary political advice from other aides. The Post says Trump was “following the advice of Stephen Miller, Johnny McEntee, Derek Lyons and other trusted aides to think of masks as a cultural wedge issue.” This implies that Miller and others overrode life-saving public health recommendations for the sake of what they thought would be political advantage.
3. Mark Meadows. A few months into the crisis, Trump stopped showing up at press briefings on the virus. An administration official says Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, made this decision on the grounds that politically, talking about COVID “was a loser message.” Meadows rejected pleas from Fabrizio and other advisers to promote masks. In the fall, he told health officials—including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force—that “he did not believe their troubling data assessment” of the coming winter death toll. And when COVID invaded the White House, Meadows “sought to conceal some cases … and instructed at least one fellow adviser who sought to disclose an infection not to.” A Post source says Meadows “threatened to fire White House Medical Unit doctors … if they helped release information about new infections.” Meadows’ office denies this allegation.
4. Marc Short. The article says Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, scrapped a proposal in March to distribute masks to every household. (The plan was reportedly shelved in part because aides “surmised” that Trump wouldn’t want to partner with the U.S. Postal Service, given its business relationship with Amazon.) Short also “advised the vice president against detailing” the rising death and infection tallies when briefing the press. Later, after Pence failed to wear a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic, Short allegedly chewed out an official at the clinic for rebuking the vice president.
5. Scott Atlas. The article cites multiple offenses by Atlas, the radiologist who supplanted Birx and Fauci on the virus task force. In private conversations with Trump and Pence, Atlas dismissed grim projections from Birx and Fauci that turned out to be correct. He also steered Trump away from a broad testing plan recommended by Birx and others. In task force meetings, he argued for “substantially fewer mitigation efforts.” And after Birx urged Florida officials to restrict bars and restaurants, Atlas went to Florida and advised the governor to do the opposite.
6. Brad Smith. Smith, the director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, is accused of suppressing death projections. Max Kennedy, a volunteer brought in by Kushner, says Smith “asked him and another volunteer to make a coronavirus model for 2020 that specifically projected a low casualty count.” He says Smith told him that the prevailing models were “too catastrophic” because they projected that “250,000 people could die.” Smith’s instructions, according to Kennedy, were: “I want this model to show that fewer than 100,000 people will die in the worst-case scenario.” Smith denies Kennedy’s account.
The Post also highlights other episodes worthy of scrutiny. When some Trump campaign advisers expressed concern about holding rallies that violated health protocols, they “were largely ignored, with allies arguing that rallies were key to the president’s brand and that the raucous events also helped improve his mood.” Later, Melania Trump, Karen Pence, and others hosted COVID-defiant Christmas parties at which “servers and others were forced to work and exposed for hours to guests who were not wearing masks.” According to the Post, “At least one worker who got infected never heard from anyone in the White House about the illness.”
Thousands of Americans would have died in this pandemic even under ideal government. But the Trump administration’s incompetence and malfeasance made the carnage many times worse. The U.S. death toll is well above 300,000, far worse than any other country, and growing by thousands every day. In proportional terms, we have one of the worst fatality rates in the world. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is, because people in our government suppressed information, downplayed the threat, and discouraged or obstructed public health measures. Every one of those people should be investigated.