“What did the president know, and when did he know it.”
For those old enough to remember living through the Watergate era, how exquisitely ironic is it that one of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalists who helped bring down a president after his secret tapes were revealed to corroborate their independent reporting is now centerstage with authorized tapes of another president admitting he misled the American people?
During the Senate Watergate break-in hearings almost 40 years ago, Senator Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee, famously asked former White House counsel John Dean, “What did the president know, and when did he know it” (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Decoder/2014/0626/Howard-Baker-the-real-story-of-his-famous-Watergate-question).
It turned out, based on Richard Nixon’s secret tape recordings, the president knew almost from the get-go about the botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. From the start he was involved in the illegal coverup, the reporting of which earned Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward the Pulitzer Prize and enduring fame for muckraking journalism.
A prolific biographer of presidents, Woodward now has audio tapes, made with the full knowledge and compliance of Donald Trump, that conclusively reveal Trump knew the explosive potential impact of the pending pandemic months before its devastation became widespread. Furthermore, he admitted on tape that he purposely misled the American people about its potential severity in what he claimed was a strategy to keep them from panicking.
Not only did he downplay the affliction, he actively encouraged behaviors that would accelerate its spread, including mocking the wearing of masks and holding large rallies with no social distancing or masks. By telling the public COVID-19 was no worse than the annual flu and would vanish on its own when the weather warmed, Trump lulled masses into a false sense of security.
Some people are predicting Woodward’s revelations of Trump’s culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans would again result in the removal of a president from office, this time through the ballot box rather than by abdication.
Don’t bet the family farm on it. Trump is a master in spin control and he has one asset Nixon never had—a base that adheres to him like glue no matter what impropriety he might have done.
It doesn’t matter to them that nearly 200,000 have died, that more than six million have been infected. It doesn’t matter to them that Trump failed to engage a national response and chose instead to push responsibility onto each state, thus assuring a less than cohesive, coordinated defense. It doesn’t matter to them that millions lost their jobs as the economy tanked, that in-school learning closed down, that millions may lose their residences because they cannot pay the mortgage or rent.
To Trump’s legions he is immune from criticism, from responsibility.
Let’s be clear: Trump committed no crime. Failing to marshal the country’s resources to fight the coronavirus is not a crime. Incompetency is not a crime. Belligerency is not a crime. Lying to the American people is not a crime.
Whether such behavior may ultimately cost Trump his current job awaits the public’s collective action November 3.
In all but a few instances Republicans and Democrats have engaged over the years in political combat over policy issues such as the national debt, environmental protections, minimum wage levels.
But when it came to attacks on our mainland the country advanced a unified response with only the slimmest of opposition.
When we were attacked on September 11 the nation did not shrug its shoulders and dismiss it as a New York-Washington-Pennsylvania problem. When the Boston Marathon was bombed the rest of the country didn’t shrug its shoulders in an “it is what it is” way and pass it off as a deserved Eastern establishment comeuppance. When the Murrah Federal Office building was blown up by right wing extremists in Oklahoma City the rest of the country didn’t shrug its shoulders and say, “Those Middle Americans thought they were immune from attack. That’ll show ‘em nobody is safe from extremism.”
Trump chose to divide the country. He disdained one of the key roles a president can take on, that of national reconciler. No “fireside” chats to ease the concerns of a people scared about their health and worried about their elderly family members in nursing homes. No leveling with the American public. Just a belligerent attitude blaming China and pushing responsibility onto the states for what clearly should have been a national response. Instead of setting an example by wearing a mask in public Trump disparaged the practice. He took the posture of a snake oil salesman hyping unproven and possibly dangerous remedies. He talked over critical medical advice proffered by professionals.
For unveiling Trump’s culpability months after he had uncovered it and just days before his new book comes out, Woodward has had to answer questions about his ethics. Yes, the messenger might well deserve to be “shot,” but the debate over Woodward’s professionalism is a distraction from the real revelations that affect us all.
Our president lied to us. More people, many more people, died unnecessarily. We are months behind other countries in recovering from the pandemic. All because one man, one man!, didn’t want his leadership to be tainted by exposure to the virus.
What did the president know? He knew COVID-19 was horrifically deadly.
When did he know it? As early as last February.
What did he do about it? Not enough.
According to Worldometer, as of Thursday, September 10, COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of 196,090 in the United States. Cases topped 6,583,575.