History will show the former U.S. president was staggeringly negligent during the pandemic’s deadly third wave.
By Laurie Garrett [February 18, 2021]
At long last, we see glimmers of hope. The COVID-19 epidemic in the United States has fallen below the numbers of daily new cases tallied on the eve of the presidential election, the point at which this viral nightmare soared. Using the New York Times’ coronavirus data tracker, on Nov. 1, 2020, there were 74,195 new cases counted in the country; by Feb. 16, new case reports came in at 64,376.
But in between those dates, a national horror unfolded, peaking on Jan. 8 with 300,619 new cases reported in just 24 hours. This staggering wave, one full year into the pandemic, was completely unnecessary for the world’s richest country. Achieving any sense of closure will require holding Donald Trump accountable for the failure.
There is vast evidence of Trump’s negligence during the pandemic’s third wave. Had I been a member of the House of Representatives during the body’s impeachment deliberations, I would have added to Trump’s indictment the crime of pandemicide, naming him as responsible for most of the COVID-19 deaths that transpired while he, the nation’s leader, was preoccupied with damning Joe Biden’s election victory. Trump’s failure to, as he vowed in his oath of office, “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” promulgated a scale of lives lost exceeding anything experienced in the country since the Civil War, 160 years ago.
I do not accuse Trump of pandemicide in reference to mistakes made by his administration between January 2020—when it generally ignored the outbreak in Wuhan, China—and the summer surge of cases and deaths across the United States. I do not charge pandemicide over Trump’s Feb. 26, 2020, dismissal of the COVID-19 threat as miniscule, claiming, “The level that we’ve had in our country is very low, and those people are getting better, or we think that in almost all cases they’re better or getting. We have a total of 15.” Nor do I charge pandemicide over his repeated insistence that COVID-19 cures were available in the forms of hydroxychloroquine, bleach, ultraviolet light, convalescent plasma therapy, the Regeneron cocktail, oleander extract, or simply warm weather.
And though there is striking evidence that the policies of the four-year Trump administration vastly worsened life expectancy and mortality rates in the United States, contributing to 461,000 excess deaths in 2018 alone, these are matters of callous, ill-considered policies and brutal budget cuts, preceding the virus’s arrival to U.S. shores.
Pandemicide is not the outcome of ill-advised, ignorant, or outright stupid budget actions and health messages. I do not even level the charge over Trump’s denunciation of mask use and opposition to temporary business and school closures to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, encouraging people to “liberate” states that were implementing tough lockdown regulations.
Rather, the path of pandemicide was paved in pursuit of the president’s reelection and his relentless, all-consuming post-election campaign to refute his opponent’s victory, claiming election fraud and even theft. Despite the summer surge in COVID-19 infections nationwide, Trump abandoned virtual campaigning in favor of crowded, largely maskless gatherings of his supporters, knowingly risking that each rally would become a superspreader event. According to a study by Stanford University, 18 campaign rallies held between June 20 and Sept. 22, 2020, spawned in excess of 30,000 COVID-19 cases, likely leading to more than 700 deaths. During the same time period, half of Trump’s campaign rallies were followed by COVID-19 surges in the counties in which they took place. While Biden’s campaign rallies were largely virtual or held in parking areas with participants in their vehicles, Trump’s tightly packed, mostly mask-free throngs increased in both number and frequency, further spreading the virus and causing the U.S. government’s top COVID-19 response expert, Anthony Fauci, to warn that the president was “asking for trouble.”
Even after Trump and the first lady contracted COVID-19, compelling emergency treatment that included, in Trump’s case, hospitalization at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and round-the-clock treatment from an army of physicians and nurses, the president refused to regularly don a mask. On the day of his hospital admission, Oct. 2, the United States had cumulatively logged more than 200,000 deaths to COVID-19—an undercount, as are all U.S. COVID-19 numbers, but an official data point that would more than double by the Jan. 20 inauguration of Biden. According to a new Lancet Commission report compiled by an international team of august scientists and public health leaders, some 40 percent of America’s COVID-19 death toll during the Trump administration was needless, meaning it could have been averted with available nonmedical interventions.
By the time the election took place, Trump had ignored the pandemic, not attending a single COVID-19 White House meeting for at least five months, since late May. Behind the scenes in the fall, the Trump administration lobbied Congress vigorously to block the movement of funds to states for vaccine rollout efforts, leaving them unable to efficiently execute mass immunizations.
And going forward from election night, on Nov. 3, to the inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump was fully fixated on overturning Biden’s victory. He ceased speaking to the press on Dec. 8, held no public events after Nov. 4, and made his final public appearance at a Dec. 12 football game. According to White House schedules, Trump had few official meetings for days, left Washington for Mar-a-Lago on Dec. 23, and did not resurface until New Year’s Eve, when he delivered a video address to the nation celebrating Food and Drug Administration emergency approval of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. On Jan. 6, the president delivered his now infamous speech to supporters, exhorting them to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. From Jan. 7 until he moved out of the White House on the morning of Jan. 20, Trump made few public remarks, frustrated by his loss of access to social media. As his much-touted Operation Warp Speed sputtered, unable to speed vaccines into the arms of Americans, Trump was silent. And the White House became COVID-19 central, with chief of staff Mark Meadows, four other White House staff, Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs Ben Carson, and David Bossie, Trump’s designated leader of efforts to challenge the election, all infected. In line with the president’s mantra that COVID-19 wasn’t all that serious—“Don’t let it take over your lives”—none of these individuals regularly wore protective face masks in the White House or on the election-counting trail.
So, I level the charge of pandemicide against Trump for his failure to say or do anything to halt the soaring burden of infection and death across the United States from Election Day to his departure from office. During a period when experts inside his government warned that holiday travel and interactions over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s could lead to massive spread of the virus, and states clamored for aid to disseminate vaccines, Trump was mum.
He ignored the pandemic on Nov. 3, when 92,000 people were newly infected, bringing the nation’s cumulative total to 9.4 million and its death toll to 225,000.
He remained taciturn as more than 1 million Americans per day, over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, flew on commercial planes and millions more traveled by other means to visit families, despite stay-at-home pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By Nov. 30, more than 13.5 million Americans had tested positive for COVID-19, and 259,000 had died.
As Christmas approached, public health leaders again pleaded for Americans to resist temptation, stay home, and avoid family gatherings. By Dec. 22, 18 million Americans had acquired COVID-19, and 314,000 had died from it. But the president was silent, and, again, millions of Americans traveled and celebrated with friends and families.
As the new year neared, on Dec. 31, the total case count was almost 20 million, with 336,000 deaths. And still, Trump was silent.
As his insurrection mob gathered on Capitol Hill, the case tally topped 21 million, with 352,000 deaths.
And by the time Trump boarded Marine One for his final helicopter ride at taxpayer expense, en route to Mar-a-Lago, 24 million Americans had tested positive with SARS-CoV-2, killing nearly 400,000 of them.
Between the election and the inauguration, the number of infected Americans more than doubled, skyrocketing from 9.4 million cases to 24 million—adding some 15 million cases, on Trump’s watch, when he was fixated on overturning Biden’s victory and AWOL on the pandemic front.
And in his absence from pandemic duty—his duty to protect the American people—172,000 Americans died, nearly doubling the mortality toll since Election Day.
Republicans have, of course, decided that Trump cannot be impeached now that he is a private citizen. As a matter of formality, then, my call is moot. But let history record that no sitting U.S. president—since April 30, 1789, when George Washington took the first oath on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City—has willfully allowed such preventable carnage to unfold on the American people.
Let history record that Donald Trump is guilty of the crime of pandemicide.
Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer.