Little by little, we learn more about Donald Trump’s schemes and lies during the coronavirus pandemic. A few days ago, we found out from excerpts of a new book—Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History—that Trump proposed to quarantine sick Americans at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, so they wouldn’t count as U.S. infections. Now comes another revelation from the same book, this time about Trump’s own COVID-19 infection last fall. He lied about his ordeal, ridiculed precautions, and told people not to worry about the virus, thereby accelerating the worst wave of the pandemic.
Trump pretends he caught the virus because it was inescapable. In reality, he caught it because he sabotaged mask use and social distancing, endangering everyone around him. He didn’t just hold big campaign rallies. He told aides to remove their masks at the White House. The book’s authors, Washington Post journalists Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, report that Trump specifically objected to masks in staged appearances: “If someone was going to do a news conference with him, he made clear that he or she was not to wear a mask by his side.” In these situations, the no-mask rule did nothing to help Trump hear or see anyone who was speaking to him. All it did was signal to the public that masks were unnecessary or disapproved.
On Sept. 29, shortly before Trump officially tested positive, he went to Cleveland to debate Joe Biden. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Trump suspected, or should have suspected, that he might already be infected. But the book adds an incriminating quote: After meeting with military families at the White House on Sept. 27, Trump told his staff, “If these guys had covid, I’m going to get it because they were all over me.” That remark, combined with his accumulating symptoms, suggests he knowingly endangered Biden and others at the debate.
Once Trump tested positive, the infection could no longer be concealed. But he could still try to hide its severity, and he did. The authors report that he agreed to go to Walter Reed Medical Center only after aides presented a choice: He could walk to the helicopter on his own, or he might be wheeled out to it later, in which case “there would be no hiding his condition.” Trump was already being treated in the White House, so his reluctance to go wasn’t about bravery. It was about vanity and deception. That’s why his aides framed the choice as they did.
Trump got much sicker than he or the White House acknowledged. Normal blood oxygen levels range from 95 percent to 100 percent. According to the book, Trump’s levels fell into the 80s. Aides feared for his life, and doctors administered a flurry of experimental treatments that were rarely combined. He was rescued by measures no ordinary person could expect: cutting-edge drugs that were in short supply, supervision and advice from the nation’s top physicians, and a direct phone call to the head of the FDA to get authorization for a novel therapy.
It’s not surprising that the president of the United States got extraordinary care. But when you read the details of what it took to keep him alive, it’s dismaying to go back and look at what he told the public afterward. On his return from Walter Reed—while “still probably contagious,” the authors note—he defiantly removed his mask for the cameras, and he “strode into the White House, passing staffers” and potentially exposing them to the virus. Then he made a video, telling Americans that his recovery proved they shouldn’t fear the virus. “Don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it,” he assured them. “We have the best medicines. … Get out there.”
Three days later, Trump gave his first interview since getting sick. He said he felt “perfect” and would soon resume his campaign rallies. The lesson of his infection, he told Fox News viewers, was that precautions were pointless—since even the president had been infected—and that the virus was nothing to worry about. “No matter how good the security, you’re not going to protect yourselves from this thing,” he concluded, “unless you just literally don’t come out.” In fact, he argued that people who stayed home instead of congregating with others were just as likely or more likely to get sick, and he noted that some politicians who wore masks got infected anyway. “You catch this thing,” he shrugged, but “when you catch it, you get better. And then you’re immune.” As to the lifesaving drugs he had received, Trump scoffed, “I think I would have done it fine without drugs.”
As a White House employee, Trump imperiled everyone around him. As president, he interfered in every aspect of the government’s response to the pandemic, contributing to a death toll that had passed 200,000 by the time the virus caught him. Despite this, America—its best doctors and its best medicines—saved Trump’s life. He repaid that gift not by warning Americans to learn from his mistake, but by encouraging them to follow his recklessness. Since then, another 400,000 have died.