The unanswered question from Bob Woodward’s blockbuster book on the Trump presidency, helped along by 18 interviews with Trump himself, is why Trump lied about the dangers of the coronavirus. That lie — actually a long series of lies — led to a lack of preparation, led to a lack of mobilization, led to maybe 100,000 avoidable deaths or more.
We’ve heard Trump’s not-wanting-to-cause-panic defense, which is laughable on its face and believable only if Trump was considering how Wall Street might panic. Ironically, Wall Street, after some panic when the danger became clear in March, has won back its losses. If only we could say as much for the COVID-related unemployed or the public school districts and their students struggling to right themselves or the small businesses that have closed.
Otherwise, we know that in every campaign Trump’s go-to move is to incite panic. This time we’ve got the feeble puppet Joe Biden, who despite 40-some years as a moderate Democrat, would somehow destroy America or, at minimum, (wink, wink) destroy the suburbs.
In any case, the defense makes no sense.
I mean, what did Trump think would happen? The best service I’ve seen from the Woodward book excerpts is the insight they provide on Trump’s relative knowledge about the virus. Trump was not, as many of us thought, ignorant of the dangers. It was not, as many of us thought, a matter that Trump had paid no attention to the briefings.
This was not your ordinary negligence. Trump knew. And still he lied. He lied — and as they used to say of Bush and the lead-up to the Iraq war — people died.
So, again, why did he lie? What did he think he could possibly gain by lying?
Eventually the truth would out itself. Eventually the virus would attack America — as it had attacked China and Europe — and Trump would be seen as the great minimizer and the great failure that he is. It would be clear that he had developed no plan when he had the chance. And, in fact, he still doesn’t have a plan and still walks around maskless and still encourages crowds to risk death to go to his rallies.
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How could he have missed the obvious point that that the virus, with its accompanying economic ruin, would wreck his chances for reelection? For that matter, how can he still blame China when we now know what Trump knew and when he knew it?
It’s a scandal. Yeah, another scandal.
So why did he lie? We can assume he lied because it’s pathological with him. There are so many Trump lies that the Washington Post fact-checking team recently published a book addressing them.
But it was also — what’s Trump’s word for Biden? — stupid, just as it was stupid/foolhardy for Trump to believe he could sweet-talk Woodward into writing a favorable book about him. Here’s guessing that Trump hasn’t read any of Woodward’s books, including the previous one about him.
If Trump had followed, say, Germany’s example, put the scientists out front, tell the people as FDR did, not to become paralyzed by fear but to take on the crisis with full-out mobilization, many things might have been different. As Joe Biden would say, come on, man, this is America. That’s not always a convincing argument, but Trump’s best chance would have been to rally the citizenry.
He didn’t. Probably he couldn’t. Probably it never crossed his mind. We know he told us, although he knew better, that it was like the flu. Although he knew better, he told us it would go away miraculously. Although he knew better, he told us we could gather in places of worship by Easter. Although he knew better, he pushed for businesses to reopen.
This was not your normal brand of wishful thinking. It was the kind of wishful thinking that would rely on Trump’s narcissistic belief that he, and only he, might be able to hold back the flood with a finger in the dike.
And yet, maybe the saddest thing about Bob Woodward’s book is the conventional wisdom that it will have little impact on the 2020 election.
Sadly, I agree. I learned another lesson on this topic from the very recent Jeff Goldberg losers-and-suckers Atlantic article, which shows how Trump brazenly demeaned the lives of those Americans who died in battle and how he wondered aloud why anyone would join the military given the little economic upside available.
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson cited Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address to provide the counter-argument: “From these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.”
Gerson adds: “By Lincolnian reasoning, Trump is indifferent to the fragile majesty of democratic institutions because he is impervious to the sacrifices on which they rest.”
And yet, polls in the past week remain largely unchanged, except in Florida, where the race has tightened in Trump’s favor. One YouGuv poll, though, showed that 50% of Americans believe the Atlantic story, and only 31% believe Trump, so maybe there is some breakthrough happening. We’ll have to wait until next week to see whether Woodward’s book, Rage, breaks through anywhere except on the best-seller lists.
Yes, Woodward has tapes. That’s different. Yes, the tapes automatically put those of us of a certain age in mind of Watergate, Rose Mary Woods, Alexander Butterfield and Nixon waving from the helicopter.
On the tapes, you can hear Trump unashamedly confess to lying. For Trump, lying is a campaign tactic, nothing to be secretive about.
Every Trump campaign, from the golden escalator ride on down, has been about stoking panic. Mexican rapists. The 2018 caravan that did magically disappear. On and on.
For any other presidency, Woodward’s blockbuster would be a Comey-level September surprise. But my fear is it will be just the latest in the recent series of damning books — from Mary Trump, from John Bolton, from Michael Cohen, from several reporters, from more — that have little to no impact. Just as the long array of scandals seems not to move the polls, one way or the other.
Maybe the tapes will be different. I’m sure Biden will be flooding the airwaves with those tapes. I’m sure the anti-Trumpist Lincoln Project will make even better use of the tapes. The great Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist who does a weekly Q&A with New York magazine, is skeptical. He jokingly suggests that the best way to get people to listen is for comedian Sarah Cooper — Trump’s lip-syncing nemesis — to put out a box set.
Even though Woodward’s tapes show that Trump’s lies on coronavirus may well have cost more than 100,000 lives, it’s what many already suspected and — with or without tapes — what many in Trump’s base will probably reject. We remember the Access Hollywood tapes. Meanwhile, vulnerable GOP senators (see: Gardner, Cory, whose poll numbers have been improving) say nothing. Other Trump enablers actually try to defend the lies. That’s where we are.
I haven’t read the Woodward book yet, which I’ve preordered. I’m not a fan of his books. He is not a good writer and his conclusions are almost always predictably establishmentarian. You don’t go to him for the smart take. You go to him, over so many years, for the strong reporting. Anyway, the book should arrive Tuesday, which is when it officially goes on sale. If you want to read an interesting takedown of Rage, read this New York Times book review by Jennifer Szalai.
Woodward has already given away the ending line to his book: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
From my reading, that’s basically what every insider book has said about Trump. Mary Trump, Trump’s niece, also had tapes on Trump’s sister bashing him. But Woodward’s tapes make for a Trump confessional. Who you gonna believe — Trump or your lyin’ ears?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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