Donald Trump was not the first president to declare, “My first duty as president is to protect the American people.”
But no president has abandoned that duty so deliberately as Donald Trump.
When he was called upon to answer a threat to Americans so severe that it would, in barely three months, leave more dead than were killed in World War I, Trump started lying. And he has never stopped.
The president downplayed the danger of the coronavirus pandemic in the critical early stages of the fight — which the president would eventually describe as “our big war” — and he has continued to lie as the death toll has ticked upward, past 100,000, past 150,000, past 175,000. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, speaks the agonizing truth when he says of the president: “He knew and he did nothing — in fact, he willfully minimized its global threat.”
In short order, the death toll will surpass 200,000.
Tens of thousands of those deaths were preventable. But Trump’s lies made them inevitable.
This is not hyperbole.
This is not election season exaggeration.
This is the stark fact of Donald Trump’s infamy — a deliberate dereliction of duty that in a time of declared war might well be identified as “treasonous.”
On Feb. 7, after he had been briefed in detail on COVID-19, Trump told The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “This is deadly stuff.”
“You just breathe the air,” the president explained, “and that’s how it’s passed.”
A president who recognized his duty to protect the American people would have moved aggressively to address the threat, as leaders of other countries did. Instead, Trump denied the danger, with his words and deeds, until the rates of infection and death surged to levels that Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged in early August had the United States experiencing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world.
Two weeks after he spoke to Woodward about “deadly stuff,” Trump tweeted to the world on Feb. 24, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” On Feb. 27, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” On March 10, he said, “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
But it did not go away. It grew into a pandemic, a public health crisis of epic proportions that would quickly leave tens of thousands of Americans dead, millions infected, and tens of millions unemployed as the economy shut down. Had Trump taken a different tack, if he had taken urgent action to enforce social distancing and other precautions in early March — instead of promising “it will go away” — Columbia University analysts have determined that roughly 54,000 COVID-19 deaths would have been prevented.
Why didn’t the president protect the American people?
”I wanted to always play it down,” he told Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
That statement was not an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It was a description of a deliberate strategy. Trump was lying to the people he had a duty to protect. And he would keep on lying.
The president told Fox News viewers on March 24: “I brought some numbers here. We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off, I mean every year. Now when I heard the number — you know, we average 37,000 people a year. Can you believe that? And actually this year we’re having a bad flu season. But we lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off. We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies, say, 'Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.' We have to get back to work.”
What Trump did was unconscionable because, as Pocan reminds us, “The president’s job is to the lead the country, not deceive it.”
Americans are not naive. They know that politicians lie. But there are still a great many Americans who find it hard to imagine that a president would lie about matters of death.
In the spring and summer of 2020, tens of millions of Americans took their president seriously. They believed him as he downplayed the pandemic, week after week, month after month, and engaged in what Trump admitted last week was cheerleading.
One of the Americans who believed Trump was Mark Anthony Urquiza, a 65-year-old Arizonan who died June 30 after more than three weeks battling COVID-19.
His daughter, Kristin Urquiza, told last month’s Democratic National Convention, “My dad, Mark Anthony Urquiza, should be here today, but he isn’t. He had faith in Donald Trump. He voted for him, listened to him, believed him and his mouthpieces when they said that coronavirus was under control and going to disappear; that it was okay to end social distancing rules before it was safe; and that if you had no underlying health conditions, you’d probably be fine."
“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old," Urquiza said. "His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”
Mark Anthony Urquiza was not alone. Trump’s deliberate deception and dereliction of duty has led thousands to their deaths. The toll rises with each passing day, and Trump keeps saying, as he did Thursday, “Calm, no panic!”
Wrong — panic!
This presidency is America’s preexisting condition. Until it is ended, Donald Trump will continue to lie, and Americans will continue to die.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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