NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Plan your visit to the CDC Museum

For those of us who live in a world defined by facts and not an alternative universe it is clear that over thirty-three million people have contracted Covid-19 and over 600,000 have died from the disease in the United States.  From the time of the first case to our current drive to vaccinate all Americans there have been a number of predictions made by the Trump administration as to how to deal with the disease.  At one point President Trump said it would be gone once the weather warmed up, then it would be done by Easter, then all we needed to take was the drug hydroxychloroquine or inject ourselves with bleach.  These absurdities would be comical if not for the fact that people took Trump’s words seriously as how they should proceed, but what was even more ludicrous was the Trump administration’s overall strategy to cope with the disease.  In Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, both Washington Post reporters’ new book, NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY the authors accurately convey the inner workings of the Trump presidency and how they produced a strategy that exacerbated the effect of the pandemic on American citizens and still impacts the government’s response under President Biden.

One could argue that it has all been said before.  The lies, misinformation, and the stupidity just to secure reelection.  We all lived through it and despite Fox News and other obscure outlets of right wing media, most news organizations have explained what has occurred as have a number of important books.  However, none have gone into the detail and sourcing that Abutaleb and Paletta have put together and therefore if we want to become upset once again because of the crassness of the Trump administration and its dear leader there is a formidable volume that is hard to question, though the likes of Tucker Carlson and his minions certainly will.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

WGL.05.Anthony-Fauci

The authors have taken a deep dive into the events, decisions, personalities and results of decision making that have led to the catastrophic response to Covid-19 by the United States.  They hold no punches, and they dig up information beyond what has been reported in the media for the last year and a half.  Trump did not act alone in this process as he was enabled by advisers, cabinet members, friends, and family who shared his view about the virus and in a number of cases exhibited even greater disdain for the government’s scientific and public health experts than the president himself.  Decisions revolved around unforced errors, petty rivalries, and a perverted attitude toward the virus that devastated the government – the key being the assault on science by Trump and his minions.

From the outset the United States was at a disadvantage in dealing with the virus as China, despite Trump’s praise of President Xi was not forthcoming with valuable information that might have assisted in containing the disease.  One of the key figures was Matt Pottinger, Deputy National Security Head who had witnessed the Chinese response in dealing with SARS in 2003 as a member of the Bush administration and as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who called for a travel ban with China and was ignored.  Trump had just made a trade deal with China and was up for reelection and did not want to rock the boat.  As the disease proliferated in January 2020, 1300 flights from China entered the United States carrying 381,000 passengers.  The situation was exacerbated by the lack of cursory coordination by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other agencies, and the inability of the heads of those agencies to come to agreement and leave their egos at the door.

The authors present many examples of Trump’s modus operandi of pitting aides against each other and believed that the virus would magically disappear if he willed it so.  Aides and advisors were completely unprepared for what was coming and focused more on their own survival as opposed to what was best for the country.  Once the concept of asymptomatic spread emerged the dysfunction and disagreements mirrored what would later occur over the importance of masks, testing, ventilators, and the overall messages from the Trump administration cascaded throughout the media along with the negativity put forth by the likes of Fox News.

Deborah Birx
(Dr. Deborah Birx) 

The authors have written a carefully crafted narrative of the steps or lack of steps taken by the Trump administration from the outset of the crisis until January 2021.  It relies on numerous interviews of government officials, culling of emails and other internal documents, along with speaking with people off the record.  The result is that the authors follow the progression of the virus as each chapter heading contains the date, number of cases and deaths that resulted from the lack of the government’s response.  They followed up the figures by discussing the decision making process in confronting the virus for that period of time.  The chapters that deal with cruise ships which Trump wanted kept at sea or possibly sending people to Guantanamo to keep virus numbers down, the lack of PPE and other supplies to fight the virus, the misinformation put out by the Trump administration, the need by aides and health officials to assuage Trump’s ego as he did not want to deal with the virus as he focused on his reelection, and Trump’s personal comments concerning those who did not kow tow to his viewpoints all reflect the disaster that was the US response to the virus.

All the important personalities are present.  Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC was unprepared to deal with Trump’s “team of vipers.”  Jared Kushner, the second most powerful decision maker next to Trump would bring in inexperienced people to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators then when he became bored would move on to the Middle East or other issues.  Deborah Birx, the White House Covid-19 Coordinator who did her best behind the scenes to move Trump in the right direction.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, served as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became a foil for Trump who resented his popularity.  Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who mirrored Trump’s views concerning opening the country and its economic impact was brought into the West Wing. Stephen Hahn, FDA head tried to cope with the pressure in approving certain “cures” for the disease.  Scott Azar, the head of HHS whose main goal after warning about the virus was to keep his job.  Peter Navarro, the bombastic assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing whose commentary was always over the top.   Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff whose views were a detriment to the health of the American people.  Vice President Pence who privately seemed to agree with public health officials, but publicly fawned over Trump throughout.  The authors integrate others into the narrative as the US fell deeper and deeper into the viral abyss.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield holds up his mask as he speaks at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on a
(Dr. Robert Redfield)

For Trump everything seemed to be about messaging.  Trump and his minions saw the pandemic more as a matter of public relations than of public health.  Reelection was his mantra and any information that was not helpful for that process was discarded.  As Trump lost interest in the virus by June 2020, he turned nastier toward those who disagreed with him, his rhetoric particularly after the death of George Floyd became more racist.  He would resort to threats of violence and prodded his supporters to go after Black Lives Matter protestors and used federal troops and police to create a photo op at Lafayette Square.  Further, Trump’s desire to open the country up economically and politically would lead to super spreader events like his rally in Tulsa, OK and other areas.  For Trump it was all about the economy and his reelection as his fear about appearing weak.  The end result is that the disease spiked from Memorial Day, 2020 throughout the summer, and the violence that Trump encouraged spread throughout the country.  Trump weaponized the virus as a tool that exacerbated existing divisions in our country as a means of retaining power for himself.

One of the most important discussions the authors raise was the link between the virus, the death of George Floyd, and the racial impact of what was occurring throughout the pandemic.  It is clear that the virus impacted brown and black citizens more than whites.  Due to the socio-economic makeup of the country, i.e., more minorities worked in jobs like meatpacking that spiked the disease, 33% of cases involved Hispanics, 22% of cases involved blacks resulting in half the victims were brown and black when they only made up 30% of the population.  In the end brown and black people were three times as likely as whites to contract the virus!

Scott W. Atlas

(Dr. Scott Atlas)

The authors cover every aspect of the Covid crisis.  Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, the use of bleach, magical fantasy, pressure to approve vaccines as the election approached, and conspiracy theories are all present.  In addition, the authors weave the threats against public health officials, the bifurcation of the country over mask use as a political statement for and against Trump, the personal price paid by those who did their best to stem the disease, the errors made by public health officials and their attempts to overcome those mistakes, and many other aspects of the crisis are on full display.  The authors have written the most comprehensive study of what transpired from the outbreak of the disease through the beginning of 2021 and all Americans should consider what they have to say because another “nightmare scenario” is certainly something we will have to cope with in the future.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. 

(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times)

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