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Trump Says He Wanted to Avoid COVID Panic—But Panic Is His Whole Shtick

His response to Bob Woodward doesn’t fly.
September 10, 2020
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Wednesday’s revelation that President Trump knowingly lied to the American people about the seriousness of COVID-19 was both shocking and yet also unsurprising.

Throughout the early months of the pandemic, he repeatedly reassured the public that COVID-19 was no more of a threat than the ordinary flu and that it “looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

At the same time, he was telling Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward a very different story. Weeks before the coronavirus pandemic took its first American life, the president acknowledged that the virus was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” In a series of phone conversations that were recorded with his consent Trump conceded that the virus was “deadly stuff.” It was, the president speculated, maybe five times “more deadly” than the flu.

Soon after the news of his deception broke, the president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, rushed to Trump’s defense, claiming that “The president has never lied to the American public on COVID.”

A few hours later, though, the president himself came close to owning up to his duplicity. He explained that his intention in his public remarks downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 was to avoid creating panic:

I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength. We want to show strength as a nation. . . . We don’t want to—we don’t want to instill panic. We don’t want to jump up and down and start shouting that we have a problem that is a—a tremendous problem—scare everybody. . . . The last thing we can show is panic or excitement or fear or anything else.

The depth and depravity of the president’s hypocrisy about COVID-19 can only be fully grasped by examining his panic defense. His claim that he did not want to frighten people beggars the imagination.

Trump’s entire political career has been built on using fear as a weapon. As he explained to Woodward and a colleague in a 2016 interview, “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.”

And the president’s suggestion that his lie was an extraordinary act of a statesmanship hardly fits the reality of a man who has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims since he took the oath of office on January, 20, 2017.

From the moment Trump first declared his candidacy for president in 2015 he has gone out of his way to try to frighten the American people and make fear a centerpiece of his campaign strategy. As he said at the time, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Linking immigration and the threat of terrorism, Trump explained, “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening.”

In his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said that “attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. . . . Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally. Some have even been its victims.” He went on to say that any “politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

And in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he warned of an unfolding “American carnage” and pledged to stop it.

A year and a half later, in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election, the president issued dire warnings of a migrant caravan snaking up through Central America toward the U.S. border. He accused “bad people” of starting the caravan and “very, very bad people” of being part of it. Trump tweeted that there were “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” among the migrants heading for Texas.

In 2019, he again stirred the embers of racial fear by trying to make newly elected black, Latino, and Palestinian members of Congress, the so-called “Squad,” the face of the Democratic party and the embodiment of a demographic shift that he suggested threatened the economic well-being and political influence of working class whites.

Stoking fear also has been central to the president’s re-election effort. In his acceptance speech at this year’s RNC, Trump took pains to remind his listeners of the rampant “violence and danger in the streets” and of  “violent crime” especially in “Democrat-run cities.”

Moreover, in racially coded terms he has frequently told voters that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, would “abolish” suburbs because Biden wants to end racially discriminatory housing rules. Thus in July, the president tweeted out a critical column on the Obama-era housing program with the plea, “The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!”

This is not the record of a president who sincerely cares about calming fears and avoiding panic among the American public. Moreover, given Trump’s daily record of lying and deception he cannot now pretend to be the true inheritor of a tradition of  “just lies” told by leaders to advance citizens’ interests or protect their well-being. His claims about the motivation for his deadly lies about COVID-19 ring hollow.

The damage that Trump’s campaign of deception and his attacks on truth itself have inflicted on the fabric of our public life has been well documented. Yesterday, caught in a lie he could neither ignore nor dismiss, the cost of Donald Trump’s callous disregard for the welfare of all Americans was fully and hopefully finally revealed.

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is associate provost and associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is the author of The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment.