They are fulfilling Donald Trump’s darkest desires to twist the Covid-19 pandemic into a culture war, while also looking for ways to exploit the nation’s greatest public health crisis in a century to foment hoaxes and conspiracy theories and punish Trump’s enemies.
Meanwhile, they are ignoring the actual pandemic. Trump and his lackeys have decided to let America burn.
They have wasted the time the American people gave them to come to grips with Covid-19. It was precious time granted by people who, in overwhelming numbers, complied with state-level stay-at-home orders for two months so the government could come up with a serious national strategy to address the health crisis and its economic fallout.
But Trump has betrayed that sacrifice by failing to develop any coherent plan at all. He has surrendered to the virus, even as the American death toll heads rapidly toward 100,000.
He has instead spent his time sitting in the White House watching cable news, braying at his critics on Twitter, and summarily firing anyone in the federal government who tries to actually take action to prevent the pandemic from becoming even worse. The latest victim is Dr. Rick Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday after he was ousted from his position as director of the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Bright’s sin? He refused to get on board with the Trump administration’s incoherent response to the virus, notably its dangerous and ill-informed efforts to push hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, as a Covid-19 treatment just because Trump had called it a miracle cure.
While professionals like Bright are pushed aside, Trump has turned to the usual suspects to do his bidding.
Jared Kushner, his pale, thin-lipped son-in-law, has gone from creating havoc in the Middle East, where he was supposedly in charge of developing Trump’s “policy” for the region, to creating havoc in the federal response to Covid-19, thanks to his role running a backdoor coronavirus task force rife with incompetence and political favoritism. (The Trump White House has a front-door ad-hoc task force, run by Vice President Mike Pence, but Trump shut down the professional pandemic team at the National Security Council in 2018.)
Kushner’s most consequential and deadliest contribution to the government’s response came early in the crisis, when he convinced Trump that the press was overhyping the threat. That appealed to Trump’s natural inclination to call Covid-19 a media-invented hoax, especially as he started facing criticism for failing to address shortages of tests and other urgently needed medical equipment, including protective gear for nurses and doctors. Trump’s failure to take any action during the pandemic’s critical early days allowed the virus to become embedded in the United States.
Naturally, Kushner has now declared victory, even as Covid-19 expands its fatal reach across the nation. “We’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this,” Kushner told Fox News last week. “We’ve achieved all the different milestones that are needed. The federal government rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story.”
Stephen Miller, a young man with an endless forehead who serves as Trump’s master of the dark arts of xenophobia and nationalism, has inserted himself into the Covid-19 crisis as well, convincing the president to sign an executive order severely restricting immigration during the pandemic. Of course, Miller wants the temporary order to lead to the permanent, draconian crackdown on immigration he has long wished for. Miller has pushed through dozens of smaller changes in immigration policies and procedures during the pandemic, which may also lead to permanent changes.
Miller’s long-term anti-immigrant obsession has already had a devastating impact on the nation’s ability to deal with the pandemic. Trump has gutted the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is supposed to coordinate America’s disaster response, while a growing share of funding for its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security, has been shifted to immigration and border control.
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state with a body like a neighborhood bowling league champion, is helping Trump foment conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19. Pompeo has been pushing the notion that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. By contrast, the consensus among most scientists, public health officials, and intelligence analysts throughout the world is that the virus reached humans naturally through contact in a Chinese wet market.
While the exact origins of the virus don’t matter to most Americans now struggling to deal with Covid-19, Pompeo’s goal in pushing this so-called Wuhan lab theory is to make Trump feel better about his own failed handling of the crisis. It also can be weaponized to convince Trump’s die-hard base that the government’s botched handling of the pandemic is not Trump’s fault.
Over the last few days, Pompeo has offered a series of confused statements about the issue, probably because Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease professional, has repeatedly and publicly pushed back, saying that the scientific evidence shows that the virus is not man-made.
Over the weekend, Pompeo claimed there was strong evidence that the virus originated in a Chinese lab. On Wednesday, he said he wasn’t certain, but added that there is “significant evidence” that the virus came from a Chinese laboratory.
His jumbled statements show that Pompeo is trying to walk a tightrope between the experts and Trump, who has a long-standing addiction to conspiracy theories.
In the process, Pompeo has managed to pointlessly anger China — just one aspect of a broader Trump-Pompeo renunciation of international cooperation on Covid-19. Earlier this week, the Trump administration refused to join a virtual summit of world leaders who pledged to join forces to develop vaccines and treatments.
Attorney General William Barr, Trump’s Tom Hagen, has also joined the president’s Covid-19 show. Barr is now threatening to turn the Justice Department against the state governors who, in the absence of national leadership, have done the most to grapple with the pandemic. In the process, Barr is aligning himself with the ugliest strain of an emerging American culture war. Trump has repeatedly tweeted his opposition to state stay-at-home orders, while showing support for protests by armed right-wingers at several state capitols, who have demanded that the stay-at-home orders be lifted. In another demonstration of Barr’s political fealty to Trump, the attorney general is now threatening lawsuits against states with strict stay-at-home orders, complaining that they infringe of people’s civil liberties.
But Barr’s claim to be a champion of civil liberties was undermined by his actions just weeks earlier, when the administration tried to empower the attorney general to ask federal judges to freeze court proceedings during a national emergency. While the Democratic-controlled House will almost certainly not vote for the administration proposal, if it did become law it could mean that anyone arrested could be held without charge until the crisis ends.
For Trump and his flunkies, Covid-19 has been everything but a public health crisis. As if to underline that point, Trump said earlier this week that Pence’s coronavirus task force would soon be winding down. He quickly changed course on that, saying that the task force will remain active but will focus on reopening the economy. In other words, it will be an adjunct to Trump’s reelection campaign.