And in his administration, the pandemic is treated as a public relations problem. Instead of fighting the pandemic itself, officials are working to shape the pandemic narrative.
Two stories that have emerged in the past couple of days provide a vivid illustration of how the Trump administration sees this crisis.
First, this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new guidance on coronavirus testing. The CDC now says that even if you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for covid-19, unless you’re showing symptoms, you don’t need to get tested. Don’t bother.
Where did this incredibly ill-conceived idea come from?
The White House, that’s where. As The Post reports, the change “was directed by the White House’s coronavirus task force, alarming outside public health experts who warn the change could hasten the disease’s spread.”
Among those with input on the decision was Scott Atlas, the newest member of the task force. Atlas, a physician who comes from the conservative Hoover Institution, is an expert in neither infectious diseases nor public health; he was hired because Trump saw him in his frequent appearances on Fox News. Atlas has claimed falsely that children are at “zero risk” for contracting covid-19 and argued that college sports should resume.
The change to testing guidance was made while Anthony S. Fauci, who is actually an expert in infectious diseases and public health, was having surgery. He said afterward that he is “worried it will give people the incorrect assumption asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact, it is.”
We know why this is happening. From the first days of the pandemic, Trump has been obsessed with making the number of infected Americans look smaller than it actually is. In March, he said he didn’t want infected passengers on a cruise ship to come ashore for treatment because “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
And in June, he told a crowd that he instructed his staff to slow down testing so the numbers would look lower: “When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”
The point is, this isn’t some kind of passing whim on Trump’s part. Every time he’s asked about the enormous number of Americans who have been infected with covid-19 — now more than 5.8 million — he insists that the number is only so high because we do so much testing.
The White House task force knows this. The CDC knows this. By trying to reduce the number of tests, they’re doing what the boss wants. And the inevitable result will be more infections and more deaths.
But they’re not the only administration officials trying to shape the narrative, which brings us to our second story.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department demanded information from states on their decisions regarding covid-19 and nursing homes, writing that they “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”
The purpose, wrote the Justice Department, is to determine whether to initiate investigations under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which “protects the civil rights of persons in state-run nursing homes.”
Did they make this demand of all 50 states? No. All the states that have had serious outbreaks in nursing homes? No. They’re considering investigating just four states: New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania. States with Democratic governors.
Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan Law School professor, told me Thursday that, though the covid situation in nursing homes and the broader problem of warehoused vulnerable people in nursing homes are both extremely serious, the department’s letter is blatantly partisan.
“DOJ’s CRIPA authority is limited to public facilities, but the overwhelming majority of people in nursing homes are in privately operated facilities,” emailed Bagenstos, who supervised the CRIPA program in the Obama administration. He continued:
Lots of red states (Texas, Florida, Indiana jump to mind) have big problems of covid death in nursing homes, but they didn’t get letters like this. And CRIPA’s authority clearly extends to jails and prisons, where there is a serious covid problem in many states — but DOJ hasn’t lifted a finger to enforce the law there. This is just a partisan attack on opponents of the president.
All available agencies of government (including those such as the CDC and the Justice Department that we used to think were above partisan politics), are being mobilized not just to help Trump’s reelection but also to convince us that Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic never happened at all. We only have so many cases because we’re doing too much testing. Whatever went wrong is the fault of Democrats.
If you tune in to the Republican convention, you get the rest of the message. There, the pandemic is spoken about in the past tense. Trump’s depraved denial and incompetence are portrayed as masterful decisiveness.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 Americans continue to die every day from this virus, every one of them at least in part the responsibility of a president who cares only about whether he can change the media narrative of his failure. It is a crime against America, and everyone who works for Trump is being asked to help him get away with it.