It was the week when working-at-home Americans kept sneaking peeks at a most unusual sort of scoop that was looping on our news screens. It was breaking news that left us feeling like eavesdroppers listening to a confidential unburdening between famous insiders.
We heard President Donald Trump revealing something that surprised the Washington smart set. He spoke with uncharacteristically understated ease, quite unlike his familiar hard-sell default timbre we are used to when he is at his bullying pulpit. He sounded like he was talking to a colleague he wanted to impress. Actually, he was being interviewed by famed author Bob Woodward, in one of 18 recorded interviews he agreed to do for the journalist’s new book, “Rage.”
We heard Trump being interviewed way back on Feb. 7, revealing that he actually knew details about the deadly novel coronavirus that he’d always pretended he didn’t know at all. Trump said he knew it was five times more deadly than a flu. And he knew it was spread not by direct contact but just through the air. So he had to know COVID-19’s contagion can be minimized by wearing masks.
Minds began boggling coast to coast as Trump’s trusting true believers had to square all their hero shared with Woodward with all he had assured them of for months. His claims that fears about the pandemic were a Democratic hoax. That COVID-19 would vanish once it got warm (by Easter, by Memorial Day). That it was like a flu. And Trump’s faithful had always laughed along as he ridiculed mask wearers and made going barefaced seem like a manliness test.
Trump even tried to con Woodward with a non-confession confession. Trump confided to Woodward he said all that stuff just because he didn’t want to “panic” America. Nonsense. Here’s the real reason he dished all those COVID-19 lies:
Trump’s real fixation has been to win reelection no matter what – because he cannot bear being labeled a “loser.” And Trump has always been sure a strong economy would guarantee his reelection, no matter what.
So when the pandemic seemed to require an economic shutdown, Trump panicked. He was demanding events with mask-free cheering crowds jammed together — images that convey no pandemic problem.
But Trump’s greatest problem ahead will be the ultimate and most venal revelation that must now be drawn from the revelations disclosed by this 2020 smoking gun – Trump-Woodward Tapes. It isn’t a revelation about what the president knew and when he knew it. Quite the contrary. It is the revelation of what our president still doesn’t seem to know — and clearly doesn’t give a damn about.
Namely: America’s 45th president has become the de facto enabler of a mass killer — COVID-19. Especially: he was perfectly willing to con and endanger his most faithful and trusting supporters to win reelection. Despite all he knew about the real danger of COVID-19’s airborne contagion, Trump lured his faithful to mass, unmasked, at the 16 rallies Trump held this year. Time after time, his rallies were followed by news that new pandemic cases had spiked.
It saddens me to note that the full venal extent of how Trump willingly exposed his unmasked followers to COVID-19, a reality I have written about before, has now been made startlingly clear in the Trump-Woodward Tapes. Trump clearly understood the dangers, but risked the lives of his backers anyway. Words fail.
On Thursday afternoon, Trump flew to Freeland, Michigan, for a mass rally at an open-door airport hangar. Using Air Force One as his impressive taxpayer-paid campaign prop, Trump spoke to thousands of cheering, unmasked faithful. Later, when CNN asked several why they weren’t wearing masks, several confident, outspoken middle-aged white men seemed to be speaking with one mind — Trump’s.
“Because there’s no COVID,” said a man identified as Rod Beebee. “It’s a fake pandemic, created to destroy the United States of America.”
“I’m not afraid,” said a man identified as Daniel Guilder, wearing a red cap lettered “Make America Great Again. “The Good Lord takes care of me. If I die, I die! We gotta get this country moving.”
Meanwhile, George Washington University medical professor Dr. Jonathan Reiner watched the rally on his news screen. As the camera focused on thousands of unmasked Trump faithful, packed shoulder to shoulder, a reporter asked the professor his thoughts about what we were seeing.
“Criminal endangerment,” said Dr. Reiner. “That’s what I see.”
Months ago, I urged Trump to mount a win-win campaign by having everyone at his rallies wear “MAGA” masks. So I was pleased to hear the professor offer some expert context. If everyone had been “wearing MAGA masks for the last six months,” he said, “we would have about 25% of the mortality that we have now. About 150,000 lives would have been saved.”
(Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.)