The Trump administration has been torn between a faction that takes public-health concerns seriously, and one that wishes to disregard it. The pro-public-health faction has argued that the country cannot resume normal economic activity until the public has some reassurances of safety, which can only be achieved through a combination of widespread testing, tracing, and perhaps effective remedies. The anti-public-health faction either believes the dangers of the coronavirus have been exaggerated, or that the cost of social-distancing requirements is so high that the economy should simply be reopened, regardless of medical danger.
Trump has gone back and forth, and back and forth again, and is now going back once again to his original posture of downplaying the dangers of the virus. The drama has played out within his administration through a shambolic attempt to conscript business leaders into giving Trump cover, an effort that seems to have finally collapsed last night.
Last week, the anti-public-health faction signaled its intent to form a task force dedicated to prioritizing the economy. Several names circulated as members of the group, including Lawrence Kudlow (the fanatical supply-sider who has been urging Trump to disregard public-health advice from the outset) and both Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner (who is already running his own parallel task force).
The task force was designed around a fallacy that has taken hold among conservatives. According to this line of thinking, the economy can be quickly “reopened,” the cost of which will either be minimal (because the coronavirus is just the flu) or at least acceptable (because the cost of a shutdown is higher than the loss of life). The flaw in this thinking is its assumption that it is practical to reopen the economy without containing the virus. There is little evidence to believe individuals or businesses will reenter public spaces in the absence of reliable technology to protect them.
Public-health officials are not against reopening the economy per se. They have simply argued that they can’t relax social distancing until they have met some targets — the containment of the virus’s initial spread, and the availability of widespread testing, which remains unavailable.
The Washington Post has had the best reporting on the anti-public-health faction. “They already know what they want to do and they’re looking for ways to do it,” a senior administration official explained on Saturday. “They think it’s time to reopen because some thought it was never time to close, and they’ve made that up in their minds.” They didn’t want to hear about the need to deploy testing first. They just wanted to skip to the very fast economic rebound Trump was promising.
By the beginning of this week, the “task force” had evolved from a collection of Trump officials skeptical of public health to an “advisory panel” including outside business leaders. “Senior White House officials briefed President Trump on Monday about his looming decision regarding how to eventually jump-start the economy, presenting him with a list of 100 business executives that could serve in an advisory panel,” reported the Post Monday. “In a sign of how fluid things remain, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said these executives have not yet been formally notified that they could serve in an advisory role.”
This was a strange development. Why would an internal task force of Trump advisers waging a factional struggle against other Trump advisers turn into a giant public-facing council of business leaders? Also, the small detail of the executives on the council not having been “formally notified” of their participation would turn out to be important.
By Tuesday night, the Post had the answer, which was rather sinister. The administration needed credible-looking outside allies to give Trump cover for an unpopular decision that could very well lead to tens of thousands of deaths. “The debate this week has been over how to implement the return, what data could be used to justify the decision, and how to build public support for it to provide the president maximum political cover,” two sources explained to the Post.
This line from the same report might be one of the most incriminating sentences ever published about this (or any) president: “Trump’s advisers are trying to shield the president from political accountability should his move to reopen the economy prove premature and result in lost lives, and so they are trying to mobilize business executives, economists and other prominent figures to buy into the eventual White House plan, so that if it does not work, the blame can be shared broadly, according to two former administration officials familiar with the efforts.”
So the plan was to create a national death panel, conscripting corporate America into sharing the guilt in the fairly high likelihood that the plan goes pear-shaped.
Can you see the problem with the plan? Well, yes: Business leaders might not want to be on the Trump death panel. CEOs of large public-facing corporations tend to be cautious types who steer clear of reputational risks, like being implicated in a plan with a high probability of mass death.
By Wednesday, the advisory council had devolved into a Zoom call. Many of the participants still hadn’t been informed that they had been selected, and some either had scheduling conflicts or were unable to log in. A White House official explained to the New York Times “that while the administration did not wait to hear back from all 200 people whose names were announced as part of the effort, it had sent an email notification on Tuesday afternoon to all the people involved alerting them that they had been selected.” Apparently this is supposed to support the point that the blame for the debacle lies not with the administration but with the corporate executives who didn’t respond quickly enough to the “Would you like to join our death panel?” email.
Most comically, most of the business leaders who did make the call used their time (after the prerequisite flattery for Trump, which everybody knows is needed to make the president pay attention to your message) to urge the administration to step up testing nationwide. “There was a wide consensus that more testing was needed before the economy could reopen,” reports the Times. Business leaders say “pressure tactics to reopen the economy as fast as possible make no sense if the virus isn’t fully under control and consumers and businesses don’t feel safe to resume anything close to normal activities,” reports Ben White.
In other words, the group that was originally designed to counteract the advice of public-health professionals wound up giving Trump the exact same advice.