Editor’s note: This essay from David Corn first appeared in his new newsletter, This Land. Given the continuing importance of covering the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to make sure as many readers as possible have a chance to see it. This Land is a newsletter written by David twice a week that provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, books, television, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but right now you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of This Land here.
The congressional January 6 investigation has been drawing great attention lately, particularly as it has triggered the federal indictment of Steve Bannon for defying its subpoena, fired off other subpoenas at Mark Meadows and assorted Trumpers, and sought to obtain Trump White House records related to the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol. At the same time, a different congressional investigation, with much less notice, has been pursuing another profound betrayal committed by Donald Trump and his crew: the lethal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. That inquiry broke into the headlines a few days ago with the news of more evidence that the Trump White House impeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to warn Americans about the pandemic.
On Friday, the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which is chaired by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), released interviews and documents revealing how senior Trump officials tried to block government health officials from informing the public about the seriousness of COVID-19. On February 25, 2020, Nancy Messonnier, a senior CDC health expert, warned in a news briefing that the virus’s spread in the United States was inevitable. That enraged Trump, who was trying to downplay the coronavirus threat. The new material shows that the Trump administration tried to shut her up. And Anne Schuchat, a top CDC official, told the committee that Trump officials scrambled to hold a briefing hours after Messonnier’s warning, though “there was nothing new to report.”
The story gets worse: Between March 9 and May 29 of last year, the CDC held no press briefings. In testimony to the committee, Kate Galatas, a CDC communications official, said the White House repeatedly thwarted the agency’s attempts to schedule such briefings, including one in April that would have emphasized the need to wear masks to contain the virus’s spread.
And worse: Dr. Deborah Birx, who was the White House COVID-19 task force coordinator, told the committee that Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist (not an infectious disease specialist) who was advising Trump on COVID, leaned on the CDC to alter its guidelines on testing to recommend that only symptomatic people be tested. (This would have yielded lower numbers of confirmed cases.) Government scientists, worried about asymptomatic people spreading the disease, thought it was important for symptomatic and asymptomatic people to get tested. Atlas’ pressure, though, led to CDC guidance in August 2020 on testing that was less vigorous. This revised recommendation, Birx told the committee, “resulted in less testing and…less aggressive testing of those without symptoms that I believed were the primary reason for the early community spread.” A month later, the CDC reinstituted the more expansive testing directive. It was released over “objections from senior White House personnel,” according to Birx.
As researchers from UCLA noted in March 2021, the United States could have avoided 400,000 COVID deaths if the Trump administration had implemented a more effective health strategy that included mask mandates, social distancing, and robust testing guidelines. Birx made a similar statement at that time.
We’ve long known that Trump did the opposite of what public health experts advised. More concerned with his own standing in the polls than with the health and safety of the citizenry, Trump dismissed or minimized the threat and sent a mixed message on masks, social distancing, and testing. The new revelations from the committee underscore his immense negligence and dereliction of duty that led to the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands.
In a world of endless Trump outrages, this particular atrocity deserves more…well, outrage. The right went nuts over Benghazi, in which four Americans tragically died, yet it evinces no concern over the needless deaths of 400,000. Is this number just too large to absorb? In a 1932 essay, German journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky quoted a fictional diplomat referring to the horrors of war: “The war? I cannot find it to be so bad! The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!” (No, apparently, Stalin did not say this.)
Moreover, it’s dumbfounding that killing 400,000 through ineptitude is not a disqualification for political leadership. Trump remains the GOP’s 2024 frontrunner, and party leaders continue to genuflect before him. Meanwhile, decrying Mr. Potato Head and Big Bird and fulminating over Dr. Seuss books have been far more important priorities for Republicans.
It’s also puzzling that the nation is not more focused on learning what went wrong during this horrific crisis. The work of the coronavirus subcommittee is not breathlessly monitored by the media. The material it just released did not make the front pages, as far as I can tell. And a search indicates the New York Times did not cover it. There is still much to learn about how Trump and his accomplices screwed up the government’s response to this once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) catastrophe. (Paging Jared Kushner.) It just doesn’t seem too high on the national to-do list.
Still, Clyburn pushes on. He has been trying to obtain testimony from Dr. Robert Redfield, the former CDC director. Redfield’s appearance before the committee was blocked last year by the Trump administration. On Friday, Clyburn sent him a letter to “renew” the committee’s request that he submit to an interview and hand over documents. In the letter, Clyburn noted, “The Trump Administration’s use of the pandemic to advance political goals manifested itself most acutely in its efforts to manipulate and undermine CDC’s scientific work.”
It’s tough to think of a topic more deserving of congressional oversight than the government’s mishandling of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and caused economic hardship for tens of millions of Americans. (A seditious violent assault on Congress, as part of an effort to overturn an election, comes to mind, too.) For obvious reasons, Trump and the GOP do not want scrutiny of this policy debacle that was driven by Trump’s narcissism and incompetence. For the health of the republic, Clyburn should press ahead.