Cotham & Goodnight Investigation

Seven Ways Trump’s Mendacity Surrendered Nation to Covid-19

Many Americans believe that Trump ignored the COVID-19 virus until too late. There has, however, been no systematic analysis of how Trump’s denials and related delay injured our country’s response. Until now.
Editorial cartoon by Mr. Fish – ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth’

By W. Mark Cotham and Gerald Thomas Goodnight

[Eds. note: This is an abridged version of a much longer, even more thoroughly sourced academic paper which you can find here. For references for this version, see bottom.]

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

English proverb

I don’t take responsibility for anything at all

Donald Trump

Setting the Table for Failure

During January through early March Trump told Americans things about the COVID-19 virus and its containment that have proven false. A micro-burst serves as a reminder of the full-scale dishonesty of the President.  

Most shaky of all is Trump’s vacillating stance toward the pandemic. He has lurched from complete denial (“One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”) to “I am not responsible” to “We’re doing a great job” to “It’s going to disappear” to “It will go away” to awarding himself a 10 out of 10 to calling the unavailable tests “PERFECT” to claiming “We have it very well under control” to setting Easter, April 12, as the date to reopen the country “a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline” to boasting of high ratings as death projections soared. On Tuesday [March 31], Trump seemed to have come to his senses, at least for now: “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks.” (Edsall).

Trump, throughout his denials, spoke contrary to the advice he was receiving. We know, for example, Trump spoke contrary to: the medical advice he was getting; the intelligence he was receiving; and his advisor’s Peter [TG1] [MC2] Navarro’s dire warnings in January and February that COVID-19 threatened hundreds of thousands of American deaths and trillions of dollars of damage. In other words, we know Trump was told this is a serious threat, but told us the opposite. Quite simply, he engaged in “mendacity.”

 We use “mendacity” as an umbrella term for Trump’s lies. “Mendacious” is an old term, last in prominence when Americans were polarized during the 1830s. A mendacious leader is one whose words and talk exhibit the qualities of untruth, fiction, fabrication, falsity, deceit, fraud, fallacy, illusion, as well as deception imposture, delusion, fraud, artifice, guile, imposition, and lies. Quite a list; but it is important to remember that Trump’s COVID-19 rhetoric constitutes a turbulent aggressive ever-changing stream of mis-information.

Elsewhere, we explore in far greater how we know that Trump lied, as opposed to him being simply mistaken or poorly informed. For example, when confronted at the end of March with the disparity between downplaying the COVID-19 threat/insisting it was under control, Trump said he didn’t like to be “negative” and was “cheerleading.” Someone who sees a burning building is not “being negative” by sounding an alarm. Telling a nation that a pandemic is “under control”, when it is not, is not being a “cheerleader” for anything other than the death of many Americans.

For now though, the important point is that Trump lied to our country for a long time during which our national response to COVID-19 was gravely injured.

The virus never slept. With an understanding of Trump’s mendacity in hand, the next questions are: what was the virus doing while Trump was downplaying its significance and was that inevitable?

While Trump lied, the virus exponentially grew. As Andrew D. Hwang, Associate Professor of Mathematics, College of the Holy Cross has explained:

In an epidemic, early action saves lives. Conversely, delay in public health response inflates case numbers exponentially…the coronavirus doubling time in the U.S. was at most two and a half days.

Under these conditions, each eight-day delay in public health response translates into roughly 10 times as many cases and deaths as immediate action….By waiting until mid-March to act as a nation, the U.S. lost control over the starting value. (Hwang).

We now know that the virus’ growth was not inevitable for two reasons. First, other countries successfully tested, contact traced and isolated infected persons. As Dr. Clayton Dalton explained:

…Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea all deployed an aggressive testing strategy very early on. This allowed them to find the first few cases and isolate them, preventing unchecked community spread. Because our government and public health authorities were unprepared, we have missed that precious opportunity in the United States, and it is going to cost people their lives. (Dalton).

Second, we know the virus’ spread was not inevitable because it was in fact arrested, albeit belatedly, by social distancing. Epidemiologists Britta L. Jewell and Nicholas P. Jewell, describe the extraordinary impact that the earlier initiation of social distancing might have made:

On March 16, the White House issued initial social distancing guidelines, including closing schools and avoiding groups of more than 10. But an estimated 90 percent of the cumulative deaths in the United States from Covid-19, at least from the first wave of the epidemic, might have been prevented by putting social distancing policies into effect two weeks earlier, on March 2, when there were only 11 deaths in the entire country. The effect would have been substantial had the policies been imposed even one week earlier, on March 9, resulting in approximately a 60 percent reduction in deaths. (Jewell).

With an understanding that Trump lied to our nation while the virus was exponentially growing, but that the virus’ spread was not inevitable, it is now worth considering the specific mechanisms by which Trump’s lies hurt our national COVID-19 response.

Seven Ways Trump’s Mendacity Hurt the United States.

We believe that there are seven ways that Trump’s mendacity prevented a more intelligent and effective response to COVID-19.

1. Trump’s mendacity effectively mandated a weak and lackadaisical federal response.  

Trump’s minimization of the threat of COVID-19 ensured that the federal response was extremely slow, disjointed and underwhelming. This follows from the simple reality that when a President lies, over and over, his lie becomes the official federal word on a subject and the entire government is effectively constrained to act in accordance with it.

The notion that the President set the tone—and an absolutely false one at that—and that this impacted the overall administration’s response to COVID-19 is the consensus that has emerged from interviews of officials and others.

[R]epeated false claims by the president that the virus was being contained exacerbated the problem. They made it difficult for public health officials to lay out the need to prepare for what happens next, even after most experts had begun to fear the virus was already here and spreading. There was also a ripple effect, with health officials and others not taking the threat as seriously as they should have because Trump kept on making faulty assurances, such as his claim at a Feb. 26 news conference that within the United States, the number of cases was “going to be down to close to zero.” (Parker).

So, at its most basic level, Trump’s downplaying of the COVID-19 threat made sure that the entire Federal Government would similarly downplay the event and delay preparations. While we will never know precisely what a motivated competent response would have looked like, we know based on the experience of other countries and epidemiology more generally that “early action saves lives” and that perhaps 90% of our casualties were avoidable.

The worst and likely most injurious example of such mandated complacency is the federal government’s response to testing, the subject of the following section.

2. Trump’s deception encouraged indefensible complacency in developing a testing regimen and then refusing to correct it.

The problems surrounding testing are fundamental to the lack of an effective American response to COVID-19. Several have characterized testing as “the original sin” because so many of the flaws in our response stem from it.

The unfixed problem. The mechanical aspects behind the testing failure were mundane. The CDC sent out a flawed test kit and its response to that error was painfully slow. The FDA was slow to let hospital labs develop their own kits. Then, HHS didn’t work with commercial labs to develop widespread testing until far too late. The combined impact of this bureaucratic mess was the country missed the first indications of community spread, and testing was only ramped up after we were nationally inundated with cases.

Trump, who often projects himself as “take-charge” leader, could have broken the bureaucratic log-jam at all three of these agencies. He could have ordered use of the established WHO test kit like dozens of other nations. Instead, Trump continued to publicly downplay the threat and thereby projected complete indifference. This lack of urgency regarding testing was particularly inexcusable since the President was receiving specific “coaching” from Senator Tom Cotton and others that it was critical to be pushing the bureaucracy to develop testing.

The sheer lack of urgency is a description that many health experts apply here.

You can imagine a White House that said, ‘Do whatever it takes to test everybody for the virus,’” [J. Stephen Morrison, a health policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington],… said. “That wasn’t the mentality. It was the opposite mentality, and ultimately the responsibility to protect the American people lies with the White House.” (Biesecker).

The nation did only about a dozen to two dozen tests per day for the whole country in February. This was a shockingly low number by comparison to the virus which was growing exponentially. In five major U.S. cities, as of March 1 there were only 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus. But according to the Northeastern [University] model, there could have actually been about 28,000 infections in those cities by then. Boston 2,300. Seattle 2,300. Chicago 3,300. San Francisco 9,300. New York 10,700. (Carey).

True to his nature, Trump weaponized the country’s ignorance of the true prevalence of the virus and used that to encourage a lackadaisical national response. On February 27, he told us “Within a couple of days,” he said, the number of cases “is going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

The consequences of being unable to test has been described by many as the single most important factor in why the United States was unable to contain the outbreak. Several other countries deployed aggressive testing and tracing strategies early on. This allowed them to find the first cases and try to isolate them, preventing or at least minimizing the unchecked community spread that the U.S. experienced and is still experiencing. Trump’s testing debacle cost the nation an opportunity to see this kind of success.

New York. The inability to test also explains how and why New York got out of control so rapidly. Originally, New York, particularly the city, and surrounding environs were the U.S. epicenter for the virus. Today, it is shocking to look at the number of “known confirmed cases” in the early days of the outbreak compared to estimates that are now available based on sophisticated[TG3]  modeling done by researchers at Northeastern University. By March 1, as New York confirmed its first case, the numbers there may already have surpassed 10,000. (Carey).

Testing in New York could have led to more effective tracing and isolation of original cases. It also could have led to far earlier social distancing which easily could have avoided the vast majority of casualties in New York. Unfortunately, the same absence of testing would also occur in another setting—nursing homes.

Nursing Homes. COVID-19 has and continues to ravage nursing homes. With asymptomatic passage of the disease, staff and earlier on visitors, passed the disease on to this incredibly vulnerable population who are housed closely together, incapable of following many of the social distancing principles that are being observed by the general population. The death toll in nursing homes so far is staggering, estimated at one-third to one-half of all deaths from the virus, with the potential for growing to 100,000 or more. (Frieden).

Only about a third of the 15,000 nursing homes in the U.S. have ready access to tests that can help isolate the sick and stop the spread. (AP). The absence of testing for COVID-19 in nursing homes means that any case can be “the spark” which can then engulf the entire nursing home.

We could have done much better. Whether we are considering the lack of tests at the beginning of the outbreak, or the continuing problem of lack of tests in our nursing homes, we know much better was possible. South Korea, New Zealand, Germany, Canada to mention a few geared up, tested and far better contained the virus than the U.S. did. The only thing they had that we lacked was leadership. Finally, we also know that where testing has been used in nursing homes, good results have followed–sick patients were separated and cared for and entire homes saved.

3. Trump’s dishonesty actively discouraged responsible state and local social distancing measures that would have saved lives.

The combined absence of leadership and the lingering effects of Trump’s mendacious downplaying of the threat of COVID-19 delayed and fragmented the implementation by states and localities of social distancing policies that would have saved many lives.

The Federal Pandemic Plan. The United States under the Bush administration developed a Federal Pandemic Plan for Influenza in 2005 and it has been updated with specifics addressed in implementation plans by the Trump administration as recently as 2017. The Federal Pandemic Plan contemplates: 

[T] he Federal Government must maintain complete situational awareness and be ready and able to take decisive action to ensure a comprehensive and timely national response to a pandemic. The Federal Government will also bear primary responsibility for certain critical functions, including… provision of clear guidance to State, local, and tribal entities, the private sector and the public on protective measures and responses that should be taken. (Homeland Security).

“Complete situational awareness.” It is doubtful there is a more perfect antonym for the Trump response to COVID-19. Likewise, Trump’s administration has provided the opposite of

 “clear guidance to State, local, and tribal entities” to undertake preventative measures. Instead, the President’s public minimization of the virus greatly delayed federal officials from earlier recommending adoption of social distancing. The New York Times documented this delay in its featured piece entitled “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus”:

By the third week in February, the administration’s top public health experts concluded they should recommend to Mr. Trump a new approach that would include warning the American people of the risks and urging steps like social distancing and staying home from work. But the White House focused instead on messaging and crucial additional weeks went by before their views were reluctantly accepted by the president — time when the virus spread largely unimpeded. …

But over the next several days, a presidential blowup [concerning Dr. Messonnier’s announcement] and internal turf fights would sidetrack such a move. The focus would shift to messaging and confident predictions of success rather than publicly calling for a shift to mitigation. (Lipton).

Similarly, USA Today would interview half a dozen experts in epidemiology, economics and the medical supply chain and conclude that Trump squandered an opportunity from March 6 -13, as he had for months, to take significant steps that would have saved lives and put the country in a better position to fight the virus. (Garcia-Roberts).

Delaying the federal recommendations and guidelines on social distancing worked on two distinct levels to injure the national response. First, states and localities were delayed in adopting social distancing plans. Second, individuals were delayed in receiving recommendations regarding helpful individual actions they could take—a subject covered in the next way.

There is no doubt that Trump’s downplaying of the threat of COVID-19 delayed and negatively impacted many states and localities’ willingness to move forward with social distancing policies. Trump’s initial denials played down the threat and thereby discouraged and delayed governors and mayors from responses.

As of March 10, three days before declaring a National Emergency, Trump continued to insist that “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away… [B]e calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.” Eventually, however, the President did on March 13, declare a National Emergency. The circumstances had forced the President’s hand, making his continued attempts to downplay the virus, impossible to maintain. The National Emergency Declaration was then followed up on March 16 with guidelines developed by federal health experts.

The Guidelines have worked, albeit belatedly, to encourage states and localities to adopt social distancing principles. The reason they worked is the Guidelines combine the unrivaled expertise of the CDC and also, they are removed from the local circumstance and therefore offer an important degree of “political cover.” Political scientists and indeed governors themselves recognize that White House directives drive state public health action. The Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, in explaining why he had not issued a stay home order said the White House coronavirus task force had not sent him specific recommendations, but, “If they do, that’s something that would carry a lot of weight with me.” And, in fact, he did act further, after Trump’s tone changed and guidelines were issued.

4. Trump’s false downplaying of the threat made it impossible to properly educate the public or encourage voluntary social distancing early enough.

Trump’s dishonest appraisal of COVID-19 delayed and continues to render less effective efforts to encourage individuals to take appropriate actions. While government has the ability to adopt policies that enforce healthier behavior, it is nonetheless apparent that voluntary individual action is also key, and perhaps even more important.

It was clear from the beginning that Trump could use the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to educate the public about COVID-19. Again, the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza-Implementation Plan emphasized how important “unambiguous and consistent guidance” on the pandemic is for the nation:

Government and public health officials must communicate clearly and continuously with the public now and throughout a pandemic. To maintain public confidence and to enlist the support of individuals and families in disease containment efforts, public officials at all levels of government must provide unambiguous and consistent guidance on what individuals can do to protect themselves, how to care for family members at home, when and where to seek medical care, and how to protect others and minimize the risks of disease transmission. (Homeland Security at pp.8-9).

Recognizing the need to use the presidency to communicate “unambiguous and consistent guidance” regarding the virus, it is appropriate to consider what Trump in fact did. Trump’s messaging can be divided into two-periods: (1) the period of denial, January-March 13; and (2) the briefings-after March 13.

Denial. As the President was downplaying the virus throughout January to early March, his “base” heard him loud and clear. As one commentator put it:

President Trump has been widely and correctly excoriated for the way he is dealing with the novel coronavirus. By minimizing the danger, he heightens it. Even on Monday [March 9], Trump was comparing covid-19 to the ordinary flu, even though its mortality rate appears to be many times higher and its economic effect infinitely greater….It is hard to imagine a more irresponsible message…Words have consequences…

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week found that “Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the coronavirus poses an imminent threat to the United States” and “more Democrats than Republicans say they are taking steps to be prepared, including washing their hands more often or limiting their travel plans.” (Boot).

Reporting in early March made clear that Trump’s denials were not part of any considered “strategy”—instead to the contrary—even the White House recognized that Trump’s mendacity was the problem.

Trump’s misinformation megaphones. While the President’s denial of the virus spoke loud enough on its own, Trump’s comments also energized familiar talk-show and media pundits who magnified his lack of concern. One fascinating study by economists from the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago examined the influence of some of Trump’s most closely aligned pundits-Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. The bottom-line according to this research:

The two most widely-viewed cable news shows in the United States —Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight, both on Fox News – originally took very different stances on the risks associated with the novel coronavirus. While Hannity downplayed the threat during the initial period of the virus’ spread in the United States, Tucker Carlson Tonight warned its viewers that the virus posed a serious threat from early February. In this paper, we show that differential exposure to these two shows affected behavior and downstream health outcomes.

… Consistent with the differences in content, we present new survey evidence that Hannity’s viewers changed behavior in response to the virus later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson’s viewers changed behavior earlier. … we then document that greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight increased the number of total cases and deaths in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, the effects on cases start declining in mid-March, consistent with the convergence in coronavirus coverage between the two shows. Finally, we also provide additional suggestive evidence that misinformation is an important mechanism driving the effects in the data. (Bursztyn).

As the cases and casualties began to pile up in the U.S., denial was no longer possible and so Trump proceeded to the “briefings.”

The briefings. Instead of using the “bully pulpit” to “unambiguously and consistently” educate and influence individuals, the briefings were instead non-stop Trump promotions. Aside from Trump beginning and ending most briefings, his was also the absolute dominant voice. “According to a Post analysis, since the federal guidelines were announced on March 16, Trump has spoken 63 percent of the time, compared with Birx at 10 percent and Fauci at 5 percent.” (Parker)  

The CDC after disastrous communications during the 2001 anthrax attacks created a 450-page manual explaining how U.S. leaders should talk to the public during health crises. These recommended practices, however represent the precise opposite of how Trump has conducted himself. Whereas the CDC manual devotes an entire chapter to “choosing the right spokesperson and the important responsibilities of that position, Trump embodies many of attributes the manual specifically warns against, including especially lacking ‘familiarity with the subject matter.” (Johnson).

 This brings us back to the larger issue: A lot of experience suggests there was a way to consistently and effectively inform the public about COVID-19, from the beginning. As indicated, the CDC has extensive guidelines on messaging in a health crisis that could have been followed. Many of the governments of Asia, as well as Germany, using these principles, have waged successful and truthful campaigns against COVID-19.

Likewise, telling the truth has worked, even in in the United States. Disciplined and truthful messaging resulted in successful health campaigns for H1 N1 and Ebola. Perhaps the best case to be made for honesty in a COVID-19 response is the example of some of our governors, for example, Republican Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio or Gavin Newsom of California.

5. Trump’s misrepresentation of the threat resulted in a failure to timely scale up personal protection equipment supplies.

One entirely predictable problem with Trump misrepresenting the COVID-19 threat was the nation not promptly acquiring personal protective equipment such as masks, respirators, face shields, gowns, known as personal protective equipment or PPE. Here, for the moment, we focus only on the problem caused by Trump’s dishonest delay and not the later albeit related problems of incompetent crony administration of the Federal Stockpile.

Everyone saw a PPE shortage coming. Every serious pre-COVID-19 study observed that a pandemic would cause a sudden extreme hike in demand for PPE. For example, a 2017 Defense Department study and the so-called “Obama Playbook for management of a pandemic” both predicted a pandemic would cause a shortage of medical masks, gloves and ventilators. Also, in January, U.S. officials could see that hospitals in China were overwhelmed and soon Italy followed.

It is now undeniable that Trump’s dithering cost us two months in acquiring PPE. As one set of investigative journalists explain:

…Trump’s unwillingness to take the health threat seriously and disagreements among his top aides effectively sidelined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leaving key responders without direction from a White House….Weeks were lost that could have been used to ….purchase medical supplies, prepare makeshift hospitals and enlist corporations in quickly ramping up production of badly needed respirators and other supplies. (Cloud).

The resulting PPE shortage. Without an early call to secure PPE, the situation quickly progressed to a severe shortage. The organization,, surveyed the need and found:

Facilities of all kinds reported that most of their supplies would run out within a week or two, if they had any left at all. Of the 978 institutions, from 47 states and Washington, D.C., that responded to the second survey by April 8, 36% had no supply remaining of face shields. Another 34% had no thermometers, and 19% had no gowns left. Nearly all had no supplies remaining of at least one form of PPE. In an analysis of the data from a selection of the largest and hardest-hit states, the need was tremendous. (Schlanger).

The same shortage of PPE was also demonstrated by the Inspector General of HHS, who conducted a survey of 323 hospitals, from March 23-7.

The consequences of the PPE shortage. The PPE shortage is harmful in many ways. First, there are the direct consequences of failing to protect health workers.

The Trump administration’s failure to stock up on PPE in the early days of the pandemic has left front-line medical workers at risk. …Because of the Trump administration’s failure to stock up on masks and other PPE before the pandemic and its slowness in ramping up production after the scope of the crisis became clear, front-line healthcare workers risk contracting the deadly virus. More than 9,000 healthcare workers had contracted the coronavirus as of April 14, the CDC reports. The real number is likely much higher. (Vakil).

Aside from the dangers to medical workers, there are many other consequences which can ripple through the care system. Rationing PPE means taking chances infecting patients, forcing already overtaxed health workers to worry about their own lives and contributing to extreme healthcare worker burnout at a time when these workers are needed most.

Again, it is not as if the Trump failure to respond was inevitable due to a lack of other options. The federal government had an array of options to prevent the predictions from becoming a reality, including invoking the Defense Production Act to require companies to make PPE, or simply earlier ordering.

6. Trump’s dissembling made his administration delay in asking for supplemental funding and proceeding with a major response.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and other senators made an offer of early congressional funding assistance on February 5 during a meeting to discuss the coronavirus. The officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, however, responded that they “didn’t need emergency funding, that they would be able to handle it within existing appropriations.” (Smalley).

Senator Murphy was interviewed about that recently and [concluded]: “What an awful, horrible catastrophic mistake that was,”…

On Feb. 5, Murphy tweeted: ‘Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.’ Id.

The background behind Senator Murphy and others’ requests, pieced together by investigative reporting, is interesting, albeit tragic. Throughout February, the White House had budget hawks squabbling about the few billions being too much, that there was backdoor lobbying going on by Azar and it was not until March 6 that Trump signed the supplemental bill approving an $8 billion supplemental bill.

The consequence of the supplemental funding being delayed was well-known even as it was being passed.

The $8.3 billion in supplemental funds for emergency coronavirus aid, which Trump signed into law Friday [March 6], should have been requested a month earlier, many officials and experts said. Had the request come sooner, government agencies could have gotten an earlier start to research and develop vaccines; they could have ensured that state and local health departments had the money and resources they needed to support lab testing and infection control, transportation and lodging for people needing quarantine; and hospitals could have stockpiled supplies such as masks and gowns. (Parker, 3-7).

As the nation now anxiously awaits a potential life-saving vaccine, at promised “Warp Speed”, it is worth noting that vaccine development was one item that waited while Trump lied about the virus.

This sixth way that Trump’s dishonesty hurt the country is “historic” in the sense that the injury has already happened and it can only happen once. By contrast, the last way that Trump’s mendacity injured our nation’s response is, unfortunately, a “gift that keeps on giving.”

7. Trump’s false declarations of early victory and insistence that his response is “perfect” leaves no room for improvement, even for those things that are going poorly.

This last section expands on how habitual Presidential dishonesty corrupts the office, the federal government, and our democracy. It is likely that these impediments will continue to hurt the nation’s response to COVID-19. There are two primary focuses.

Trump’s Mission Accomplished.

Trump’s premature claim of victory embodied by his habitual self-congratulation on his falsely billed “travel ban on China” is at the heart of our failed response to date, and this and similar premature declarations of victory in the future will work against our COVID-19 response.

Jeremy Konyndyk is an insightful authoritative voice about how Trump has hurt our response to COVID-19. He is a Senior Policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and he also led the U.S. response to international disasters from 2013 to 2017 as director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. Konyndyk observes as follows:

It’s no coincidence that the coronavirus has broken out across the country as the president has continued to brag about keeping the disease outside America’s border. Rather than vigorously preparing for a pandemic, federal officials responded in a way that suited the narrative Mr. Trump preferred, focusing most of their attention on travel restrictions, passenger screening and quarantine. Pretending we could wall out the virus not only gave the public a false sense of security, it also left the United States unready for the threat it now faces….

[T]he president is the crucial variable. Errors happen in any crisis. But when a president insists on claiming success irrespective of reality, it becomes much harder for those under him to acknowledge and correct mistakes. (Konyndyk).

Whenever, as here, a President prematurely declares a victory-that inherently makes subsequent Federal efforts to address a problem unnecessary and superfluous. Trump’s insistence that his travel bans were so successful has definitely hurt our response to COVID-19 and future similar premature declarations of victory, by himself or son-in-law Jared Kushner, can also be expected to do more injury in the future.

Perfection is hard to improve upon.

Trump’s insistence that his polices are “perfect” constitutes an obstacle that drags on the effectiveness of our national response to COVID-19.  “On March 8, Trump tweeted: ‘We have a perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan at the White House for our attack on Corona Virus[TG5] ,” (Baker). Trump, as of March 16, famously rated his coronavirus response a “10” out of 10 when asked by a reporter how he would rate his response to the pandemic. (Levin).

When everything is “perfect,” it leaves no room for improvement, even for those things that are going poorly. And this necessarily undermines any ability to take constructive criticism and make the response better. An opinion piece by Greg Sargent recently pointed out, with the help of Jeremy Konyndyk, how this approach makes a legitimate ongoing response to COVID-19 impossible:

All of that failure [in the Trump administration’s response to date] is well documented. But importantly, the emerging posture — in which no error can be acknowledged in Trump’s response — threatens the country going forward.

“It’s not merely misleading — it’s actively damaging to the response,” Konyndyk told me. “One of the core principles of good disaster management is you have to be able to recognize and correct mistakes.”

“If the president’s perfect decision-making is the first principle from which everything else originates, that dynamic is a huge handicap,” Konyndyk continued. “It makes it really hard to rapidly acknowledge and correct errors.”

We’re seeing this on multiple fronts. The aforementioned failure to ramp up testing, and the ongoing failure to get needed testing equipment to desperate governors, is compounded by Trump’s insistence on claiming that no such testing failure exists — or ever has.

Meanwhile, Trump’s running failure to coordinate industry to produce lifesaving equipment on the needed scale flows directly from his long-running refusal to deploy the Defense Production Act to the degree required. After all, doing so would also require an admission of previous catastrophic error. (Sargent).

The costs of casting an aura of perfection around Trump’s COVID-19 policy can also be seen in the way that individuals and institutional protections are treated. Each of the principal health spokespersons-Fauci, Birx and Redfield have been manipulated and not too subtly brought to heel when they were perceived to be straying from the Trump has been perfect line. These manipulations are deeply corrosive of the communication process and, indeed, even to these experts themselves.

Regrettably, all that Trump is doing to perpetuate the myth of perfection has a familiar ring. The larger background includes Trump’s “handling” of his impeachment enemies and that is not lost on those involved in the COVID-19 response. We also have the institutionally even more troubling response by the President against inspector generals, including specifically the Inspector General whose report substantiated extraordinary problems in testing and PPE, who is now being displaced.


The need to track mendacious presidential rhetoric gathers in urgency. An “after-action” report may come entirely too late-dooming Americans to sift through the ruins. Truth matters. Lying has consequences.

Trump’s dishonesty delayed and impaired our government’s response to COVID-19 in at least seven ways. By any fair reading, Trump’s campaign of dishonesty concerning COVID-19 will, when all is said and done have resulted in the unnecessary death of many thousands of Americans.

It is important that all Americans understand what has happened so that our democracy can take steps to avoid future harm. It simply will not do to bury the past under poorly considered notions of “fog of war,” “no harm-no foul,” or “whataboutism.” Those who have and will die unnecessarily, not to mention our children and grandchildren, deserve more than that.

For full version:

About the Authors

W. Mark Cotham is a graduate from the Northwestern University School of Speech (B.S., MA. 1979) and the University of Texas School of Law (J.D. 1982). He has practiced law for the past 37 years and for the past decade has actively promoted the establishment of libraries in the developing world through marshaling surplus books in the United States.

Gerald Thomas Goodnight is a Professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, the University of Southern California. He was educated at the University of Houston and University of Kansas. He was a professor at Northwestern University from 1975 to 2003, and has been at USC 2003-present. Goodnight has worked on the history of American presidential address and pursues current international studies in communication.


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