the national circus

Frank Rich: The Casualties of a ‘Wartime Presidency’

Do you trust his gut? Photo: Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Brian Kemp’s plan to reopen Georgia’s economy, and the removal of a federal vaccine scientist.

Despite pushback from public health experts, local employers, mayors, and even Fox News, Georgia governor Brian Kemp has announced that some businesses in his state will begin to reopen tomorrow, and Tennessee, Ohio, and South Carolina will follow soon after. What’s the benefit to a governor like Kemp in making this decision now?

Having stolen an election from Stacey Abrams by disenfranchising black voters, Kemp clearly believes he can get away with anything. The only certain beneficiaries of his edict will be the owners and employees of funeral homes. Even before tomorrow’s reopening, Georgia ranks second in deaths per capita, behind Louisiana, among the thirteen states of the South. It ranks 40th among the states per capita in coronavirus testing. While federal guidelines ask that states achieve a sustained two-week decline in infections before lifting any restrictions, Georgia is doing so with infections on the rise. Then again, no one ever said its governor was a brain surgeon, or even functionally literate. By Kemp’s own account, it took him until April Fool’s Day to learn that asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers could spread the disease – information that had been publicly known since January.

It must have been shocking for a MAGA panderer like Kemp to be bitch-slapped by Trump, who unexpectedly declared at yesterday’s press conference that Georgia was reopening “too soon” and that he “strongly disagrees” with such a plan. This was a curious move by a president who had previously called for the entire country to reopen by May 1 and wielded tweets inciting states to “liberate” themselves at once from Covid-19 protections. What happened? Perhaps members of the coronavirus task force implored Trump at the last minute that Georgia might be on track to face its fiercest devastation since the burning of Atlanta. We know this is one American historical landmark that Trump has heard of because he’s on record expressing his enthusiasm for Gone with the Wind

The president’s favored medical tool, Dr. Deborah Birx, publicly keeps to the old script. Earlier this week, she refused to condemn Georgia for reopening nail spas, tattoo emporia, and massage parlors on the grounds that its citizens could be “very creative” in achieving social distancing in such venues. This is only the latest example of Birx debasing herself in deference to her dear leader, prioritizing his favor over public health. She first revealed her hand at one of the earliest Trump press briefings when she displayed an elaborate graphic to promote a Google site that would facilitate national coronavirus testing. The Google site didn’t exist, and neither did the testing, but Dr. Birx to this day has neither apologized for nor explained a public-relations stunt that led to more unnecessary deaths. When this “wartime presidency” is finally over, she deserves at least a cameo in any war crimes prosecutions.

Of the politicians and public officials pushing or countenancing immediate reopenings, Kemp and Birx may not be the most egregious. In Oklahoma, there’s Carol Hefner, a co-chair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, who told the Times that because her state gets “a lot of wind” and is topographically flat, it is “in a much better position than many of the other states to go ahead and open back up.” Surely the Flat Earth Society has never had a better spokesperson. In Texas, there’s the always reliable lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, whose argument for back-to-business-as-usual is that “there are more important things than living.” Carolyn Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, achieved instant notoriety when she told Anderson Cooper this week that she is eager to reopen the casinos and roll the dice on whatever happens next because “we would love to be” the “placebo” for national coronavirus testing. “I’d love everything open,” she explained, “because I think we’ve had viruses for years that have been here.” She’s not wrong: Nevada ranks fifth per capita in HIV infections.

At a time when factory towns across the Midwest are suffering devastation comparable to that of the pandemic’s coastal urban epicenters, at least one prominent Republican is speaking out unequivocally against premature reopenings: Jay Timmons, who, as head of the National Association of Manufacturers, is one of the leading manufacturing lobbyists in Washington. Timmons was for a dozen years the chief of staff to the very conservative former Virginia governor and senator George Allen; in 2004 he was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. This week, as demonstrators in Charlottesville-esque regalia marched on the Virginia governor’s mansion in Richmond pleading for “liberation,” he’d had enough. He began his Facebook post castigating the protestors with a single word, all in caps: IDIOTS. As Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post has observed, the latest incarnation of the Tea Party movement, once again underwritten by deep-pocketed right-wing donors, is rallying under the slogan “Give me liberty and give me death!”

The head of the government agency involved with federal efforts to develop a Covid-19 vaccine was unexpectedly removed from his post for, he says, resisting the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, and he has requested a federal investigation. Will his going public push what he’s called the “cronyism” out of the federal public-health response?

Not on your life – or perhaps I should say not on all our lives. We know there is only one criterion for serving as a scientist in this administration – fealty to the boss. The fact that Dr. Rick Bright was in charge of arguably the single most important mission in public health right now, developing a Covid-19 vaccine that could shut down the pandemic, didn’t matter to Trump. Indeed, Bright mattered so little to Trump that when asked about his removal, he responded “I never heard of him.”

What Trump surely had heard is that Bright, like every other scientist and doctor in the land, pushed for clinical tests to determine the safety and efficacy of drugs that the president had told Americans to take because, as he put it, “What do you have to lose?” One of those drugs, we now know, led to higher loss of life for those who took them in hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Trump doesn’t care about that; he only cares that Bright, unlike, say, Dr. Birx, favored scientific empiricism over the president’s gut “feeling” about prescription medications.

Bright’s reference to “cronyism,” in his searing statement protesting his removal, no doubt refers to the likes of the Oracle tech billionaire Larry Ellison, the U.S. trade adviser Peter Navarro, and the Fox News “personality” Laura Ingraham, all of whom have been reported to have lobbied Trump to promote the drug. They, like Trump, now have blood, including veterans’ blood, on their hands. So do all the others who used their power to push this snake oil on vulnerable Americans, including Rush Limbaugh and Ingraham’s colleagues at Fox. The network is already facing a class-action lawsuit for its dissemination of lethal misinformation during a pandemic.

With Bright gone, it’s only a matter of time before he’s followed out the door by Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC head, who made the mistake of saying in an interview what nearly every other leading public-health expert has asserted: There is likely to be a second and worse wave of Covid-19 this fall, coinciding with flu (and election) season. In Trump’s version of a public show trial, he demanded during yesterday’s press circus that Redfield eat his words. Redfield took the podium and tried to dance around this presidential order, but surely not enough for his boss’s taste. Anthony Fauci soon seconded what Redfield had originally said about the second wave.

With Bright out of action and Redfield and eventually Fauci on the ropes, you might ask what kind of people the Trump administration wants in jobs that could have life-or-death implications for Americans. One answer was reported by Reuters last night. It turns out that the man originally put in charge of the administration’s daily response to Covid-19 by Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the original head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, was a crony, Brian Harrison, who for six years had run a dog-breeding business called Dallas Labradoodles. Could the Trump administration field anyone more useless? Even though we are now learning that household pets can be infected by the virus, the known victims aren’t dogs but cats.

Frank Rich: The Casualties of a ‘Wartime Presidency’