the national circus

Frank Rich: Trump Lies His Way Through a Pandemic

He’s doing about as well as you’d expect. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s response to coronavirus shortages, how the press should cover Trump’s exaggerations and failed promises, and how to hold primaries during a pandemic.

As the coronavirus-related layoffs and medical needs pile up, experts are concluding that a strong federal response is needed. Is the Trump administration capable of rising to the occasion?
The president who is leading this country into battle cares about no one but himself, continues to lie to Americans daily about the most basic imperatives of a public-health catastrophe, and presides over an administration staffed with incompetent, third-tier bootlickers and grifters. And I am not just talking about Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, and Wilbur Ross. There are now three college seniors serving in White House positions, thanks to a new purge of ostensibly disloyal staffers being conducted by Trump’s former body man, the 29-year-old John McEntee, recently installed as director of the Presidential Personnel Office. Trump calls himself a “wartime president,” but his only previous wartime experience was partying during Vietnam, when he was spared military service because of “bone spurs.” Those bone spurs long ago migrated to his brain. If America rises to the occasion, it will be despite him, not because of him. We’re at the point where even if Trump were to start telling the truth, no one except the most mad-dog MAGA-ites would believe him.

Right now the country is waiting for a bomb to drop: that much-predicted turning point when the metastasis of illness and mass death in the U.S. could match the curve we’ve seen in Italy. Trump’s nonstop lies — and those of toadies like Pence — are not just intended to cover up the many failures to prepare for the looming apocalypse (“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”), or to blame those failures on China and Obama, or to luxuriate in unearned self-congratulation (“I’d rate it a 10”). What the lies are doing now is throwing gasoline on the gathering fire. Why in heaven’s name would Trump, having previously lied about the fast arrival of a vaccine, now tell anxious and desperate Americans two days in a row that unproven and unapproved drugs for malaria and arthritis might rapidly be a “game changer” for treating the coronavirus? Why would Pence, having previously made up fictitious numbers for the amount of tests available, now promise millions of hospital masks even as hospitals from Washington to Washington, D.C., say they will have to reuse masks because of the shortage and the government’s own Centers for Disease Control is suggesting that under-equipped hospitals use bandanas instead? Why does a president cite the Defense Protection Act, which allows him to commandeer industry to produce emergency supplies, while simultaneously telling the states to find much-needed ventilators on their own?

Trump’s answer to that last question was that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” He seemed not to understand that it’s ventilators that the nation’s hospitals urgently need, not the postal service. Such is his minimal comprehension of the urgent tasks at hand that Trump’s level of competence doesn’t rise to that of the skipper of the Titanic. The Titanic’s captain may have hit an iceberg, but at least he recognized the scientific reality that icebergs exist.

Up until now Trump’s motives for lying have been to (1) cover up what may prove the most catastrophic failure in the history of the American presidency; (2) to distract the country from the continuing failure in the effort to keep his reelection campaign afloat; (3) to boost the stock market. But another motive is emerging that’s entirely in keeping with the history to date of Trump’s kleptocratic White House: rewarding his family and cronies financially.

Jared Kushner may well be once again at the center of that buckraking. One of the more damning stories of the week, reported by the Washington Post, is that Kushner has started his own shadow coronavirus operation within the White House that is getting in the way of the administration’s public efforts. Among its major achievements thus far is to destroy the credibility of Deborah Birx, the virus researcher whom Pence has called the “right arm” of his task force, by having her display an elaborate chart explaining how a non-existent Google website would speed testing. That Potemkin website had been invented by Kushner.

That may be just the visible tip of what Kushner is up to. He told the Post that he is bringing “an entrepreneurial approach” to the pandemic. Based on his and his father-in-law’s past behavior, we have every reason to believe that entrepreneurs in the Mar-a-Lago circuit, assuming they are not killed off by the virus, will benefit from any bailouts crafted by the White House and Republicans in Congress, starting perhaps with casino entrepreneurs like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn.

This is in keeping with a president who remains passive as athletes and celebrities mysteriously cut the long line to be tested for the coronavirus. It is in keeping with a Vichy Republican Party where the senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler were dumping stocks pre-crash, seemingly exploiting inside information about the coming fiasco for huge personal profit while keeping their own voters in the dark about it. Today Tucker Carlson is receiving some applause for being a rare truth-teller on Fox News because last night he called out Burr in no uncertain terms: “There is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis.”

True enough, but Burr, despicable as he is, amounts to at most a foot soldier in the criminal enterprise being run out of the White House.

By now, a number of promises Donald Trump has made directly to the press — universal access to testing, a nationwide medical-screening website, the deployment of hospital ships — have failed to pan out after initially receiving breathless headlines. Should the press change the way it covers Trump’s promises?
The challenge to the press remains what it’s been from the start: How do you challenge a lying president on the facts in real time when he is lying as fast as he can speak? The difference now is that more than ever lives are dependent on Americans getting the truth.

This is less a problem for print-oriented news organizations, which have more time to get it right, than television news, both broadcast and cable, and of course the leaders (if that is the correct term) of social media behemoths that transmit false information at warp speed. Change is needed, and it will require collaboration of the best brains in the news business to reinvent practices and formats. Even hours after Trump had floated bogus miracle drugs before the public yesterday, at least one network evening news broadcast was teasing the story with a hopeful headline before disemboweling it.

Despite concerns from medical professionals about risks to public health, three states held their Democratic primaries on Tuesday. At least five others have announced postponements, and more are considering delays. Should voting go forward?
I will confess to finding this perhaps the least-pressing question of our time. Both parties have their presidential nominees. Obviously states must — and can — find workarounds to conduct elections that allow voters to weigh in, even if ceremonially in the case of presidential primaries, without endangering anyone’s health. But when even Tulsi Gabbard has quit the race, it’s clear this circus has left town.

Frank Rich: Trump Lies His Way Through a Pandemic