video still shot of MSNBC coverage of Donald Trump's COVID-19 press briefing.

Does Trump’s Blame Shifting And Deflection Of Responsibility Bring More Risk To Americans?

 

by Richard Cameron


 

Trump’s Blame Shifting And Deflection Of Responsibility Bring More Risk To Americans

In the latest installment of the all too reality based, Reality TV presidency of Donald Trump, Trump has withdrawn funding to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), according to media reports.

 

His decision to do so has been lauded by his voting base, which sees such moves as delivering a body blow to “globalism” and by public health experts, as a spitefully counter-productive and wholly political act.

This cannot be accurately viewed outside of the broader framework of Trump attempting to paint over the portrait that has emerged of his negligence and his illicit politicization of COVID-19.  Some might object, responding that all national crisis’s, virtually by definition, have a political component to them. That is true.

But what most often follows is a certain, if only minimal, degree of accountability, transparency and conciliation – even if only on the basis that such a response tends to douse the flames of public disapproval to one degree or another. Trump’s aggressive politicization of the virus pandemic has scant in the way of historical counterparts. 

We’ll first examine the criticisms of the World Health Organization, including from Trump administration officials.  Among them is Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro:

“Even as the WHO under Tedros refused to brand the outbreak as a pandemic for precious weeks and WHO officials repeatedly praised the [Chinese Communist Party] for what we now know was China’s coordinated effort to hide the dangers of the Wuhan virus from the world, the virus spread like wildfire, in no small part because thousands of Chinese citizens continued to travel around the world.”

There is no reason to doubt that Mr. Navarro is correct in his assessment of China’s mishandling of the outbreak of the virus. 

The Associated Press has reported that China’s central government, at the behest of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, concealed vital information that would have otherwise triggered earlier emergency responses in Hubei province and in the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan:

In the six days after top Chinese officials secretly determined they likely were facing a pandemic from a new coronavirus, the city of Wuhan at the epicenter of the disease hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people; millions began traveling through for Lunar New Year celebrations.

President Xi Jinping warned the public on the seventh day, Jan. 20. But by that time, more than 3,000 people had been infected during almost a week of public silence, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press and expert estimates based on retrospective infection data

Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient. We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”

And the U.S. intelligence community submitted a classified report to the White House, in which they concluded that the Chinese government concealed data on the spread of and the extent of the number of total cases and deaths.  Many suspect that concealment of statistics persists to this day. 

Where does the secrecy and deception of China intersect with the criticism of W.H.O.?  Much of it is accountable to the fact that the W.H.O. redistributed information its operatives within the country were receiving from Chinese authorities, with little in the way of confirmation, if confirmation was indeed possible. 

The W.H.O. was also inexcusably slow in arriving at an assessment of the seriousness of the outbreak and from January 20, did not classify the spread of the virus as a “global health emergency” until a week later. A week in the spread of a virus like COVID-19, is an eternity. That fact will serve as an indictment of Trump’s command level dereliction, which we will examine further in a moment.

The Director-General of the organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during a visit to China at that time, complimented the government for “setting a new standard for outbreak response.”  It was a month and a half later that W.H.O. officially classified the coronavirus as a pandemic. By then, 118,000 worldwide had been infected and more than 4,000 had died.

There is no excuse for the lack of a more aggressive and pro-active approach to the emerging crisis from the W.H.O.

But there is a fly in the ointment – actually dozens, for Trump, who is now pivoting to the narrative that he was completely ambushed by the Chinese and the World Health Organization. This takes us back to, for example, Peter Navarro.

Title section of the January memo on the potential risk of COVID-19

On January 29th, Navarro sent to the president, through the National Security Council, a memo warning that the administration should strongly consider a travel ban.

The memo set out two stark choices: “Aggressive Containment versus No Containment.”

  • Navarro sketched out a cost estimate comparison between the choices and concluded that the Council of Economic Advisers’ estimates for stopping travel from China to the U.S. would be $2.9 billion per month. He predicted that if the virus became a pandemic, the travel ban could extend 12 months and cost the U.S. $34.6 billion.
  • Doing nothing (the “No Containment” option), Navarro said, could range from “zero economic costs” to $5.7 trillion depending on the fatalities that could result.
  • Navarro estimated possible ranges of fatalities, on the high side involving  543,000 American casualties.

The February 23rd memo, the “Memorandum To The President”, copied to the offices of the Chief Of Staff, National Security Adviser, and the COVID-19 Task Force, outlined the following:        

  • The memo started off warning that,  “There is an increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”
  • Navarro recommended an  “immediate supplemental appropriation of at least $3 billion” to fund prevention, treatment, inoculation and diagnostics.
  • He also raised the need to organize provision and distribution of “Personal Protective Equipment” for health care workers and secondary workers in facilities such as elder care and skilled nursing.
  • Navarro projected that within four-to-six-months, “We can expect to need at least a billion face masks, 200,000 Tyvek suits, and 11,000 ventilator circuits, and 25,000 PAPRs (powered air-purifying respirators).”

Summary page of White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, sent to the president in February, outlining a potentially catastrophic coronavirus pandemic scenario.

These, you will recall, (which Trump admitted he had never personally reviewed) constitute a significant exhibit of a larger body of damning evidence that Trump was apathetic about the risks of a pandemic. A health threat, that if he had been paying attention, he would have been aware of the urgent advisories that resulted from not one, but three large scale simulations / war gaming exercises from 2017 to 2019.

The exercises, Event 201, Clade X (Johns Hopkins Center For Health Security) and Crimson Contagion (DHS), all of  which if acted on, would have found the United States in a vastly improved footing to respond to the onslaught of COVID-19. 

 

Following Navarro’s January 29 alert, Trump didn’t issue the travel restrictions on flights from China until February 2nd – 4 days later. Trump called the order, he said was a “travel ban”, which he termed “bold” and claimed that he followed through with it despite opposition.

Trump asserted that “everybody said, it’s too early, it’s too soon” and “a lot of people that work on this stuff almost exclusively” told him “don’t do it.”

The facts reveal otherwise. Health and Human Services Secretary (H.H.S.) Alex Azar said on February 7 that  “The travel restrictions that we put in place in consultation with the president were very measured and incremental.” Azar also told reporters the same day that, “These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”

Ron Klain, Obama White House Ebola response coordinator disputed Trump’s characterization of the travel restrictions as a travel “ban.”

“We don’t have a travel ban,” Klain said. “We have a travel Band-Aid right now. First, before it was imposed, 300,000 people came here from China in the previous month. So, the horse is out of the barn.” Describing the false description of the travel restrictions Trump has credited himself for, Klain adds:

“There’s no restriction on Americans going back and forth. There are warnings. People should abide by those warnings. But today, 30 planes will land in Los Angeles that either originated in Beijing or came here on one-stops, 30 in San Francisco, 25 in New York City. Okay? So, unless we think that the color of the passport someone carries is a meaningful public health restriction, we have not placed a meaningful public health restriction.”

Trump’s defense of his handling, early on in the trajectory of the outbreak, pivots on his exaggeration that authorizing a “travel ban” was a singularly heroic measure. But when we dig a little deeper into that, it becomes, like most everything else Trump fashions into a verbal bumper sticker – “strongly” hyperbolic. 

FactCheck.org, points out, Trump said the travel restrictions “saved a lot of lives” and reduced U.S. COVID-19 cases to “a very small number.”  But experts say there isn’t enough data to make that determination – and in light of the fact, that the “very small number”, stands as of the date of publication, April 16, at over 35,000 deaths and 672,179 confirmed cases, Trump’s claim about the effectiveness and singular importance of his travel restriction order is contrary to plain facts.                       .

A study in the journal Science found the various travel limitations across the globe initially helped to slow the spread, but the number of cases worldwide rose anyway because the virus had already begun traveling undetected internationally.

Trump’s boasts about his decisive act of halting flights from China, are undercut by not only the fact that travelers from other parts of Asia that already were exhibiting budding epidemics, were still traveling to the U.S., but also, his order of limited scope and effectiveness, was an action taken simultaneously with 38 other countries. 

Axios’ Health care editor Sam Baker points out that Trump’s emphasis on his issuance of travel restrictions as a be all and end all, is overblown. “This is not to say they’re a bad idea, only that this is why public-health experts don’t lean as heavily on travel restrictions. People come into the U.S. from a lot of places, and with two globalized countries, simply stopping people coming in from Wuhan was not bad but it shouldn’t be shocking that it was insufficient.”

Further emphasizing Trump’s puffery about the significance of his order, is a study detailing the findings of scientists who conducted a modeling analysis of the extent to which travel restrictions mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

Published in Science magazine on March 6, the report concludes that “In areas affected by the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), travel restrictions will only modestly impact the spread of the outbreak.” 

The study places considerably more emphasis on educating the public on behavior modification such as social distancing, widespread testing, comprehensive tracking of community transmission and hygienic precautions

Trump injected a partisan angle into the controversy about the travel restrictions. 

“I took a lot of heat,” Trump said during a Feb. 27 press conference. “I mean, some people called me racist because I made a decision so early. And we had never done that as a country before, let alone early. So it was a, you know, bold decision. It turned out to be a good decision. But I was criticized by the Democrats. They called me a racist because I made that decision, if you can believe that one.”

The problem is you can’t “believe that one”. There is no record of any Democrat calling Trump a “racist” over the travel restrictions. Biden, in a campaign appearance on February 31st, accurately noted “Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” There is extensive documentation to support that allegation. 

And ironically, some of the cautionary statements from Congressional Democrats about the hazards of racializing the virus, which they made at the time of when the issuance of travel restrictions were imminent, actually were validated by Trump’s messaging.  When Trump engaged in calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus”—it had the effect of triggering racist attacks against Asian Americans.

To the extent that, as we have seen, there is a case to be made for China having played a role in squelching valuable information, Trump himself, knocked the legs out from under it.  Trump made a series of laudatory comments regarding China’s efforts to combat the outbreak, which critics note  may have been motivated by a desire to keep the pot at least simmering for a trade deal with Beijing.

“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” the president tweeted on Jan. 24. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

On a Fox Business interview (February 10), Trump told the program that, “China, I can tell you, is working very hard. We’re working with them. You know we just sent some of our best people over there – World Health Organization, and a lot of them are composed of our people. They’re fantastic.”

 Later, on Feb. 18, Trump again complimented President Xi Jinping’s efforts to mitigate the outbreak.

“I think President Xi is working very hard. As you know, I spoke with him recently,” he told reporters. “He’s working really hard. It’s a tough problem. I think he’s going to do — look, I’ve seen them build hospitals in a short period of time. I really believe he wants to get that done, and he wants to get it done fast. Yes, I think he’s doing it very professionally.”

Then on the 24th of February, Trump tweeted that, “CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart.”

Trump gave Xi Jinping a great deal of validation that such an authoritarian leader would be prone to use for purposes of internal propaganda.  After all, it is glaringly obvious that President Jinping is doing exactly what Trump is doing here – pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.  It follows a pattern we have seen with Trump, such as in his dealings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong un

Trump’s praise of Xi, lays waste to his later attempts to offload his own failures to deal with the outbreak in a sober, responsible manner. And the tactic, part of an overall strategy of campaign damage control, is a sword that cuts Trump whenever he swings it. 

The  University of Southampton published a study examining non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in response to COVID-19.  It indicts China in that it demonstrates that if interventions in the country could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively – significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.

But Trump’s own bungling is brought into focus, in its conclusion that,

“improved disease detection, isolation of cases and social distancing (for example, the cancelling of large public events, working from home and school closures) are likely to have had a far greater positive impact on containment than travel restrictions.”

Trump’s confused and erratic messaging early on – evidences the critically valuable time lost in tackling the testing, provision of resources and equipment and the universal buy in, especially from his core political base, on compliance with public health advisories and directives. 

The World Health Organization made some missteps early and there will and should indeed be, after action reviews, assessments internally and externally of those procedural failures, but they don’t justify Trump’s misguided act of withholding funds during a pivotal moment in this global health crisis. It is an act of spite that is in diametric opposition to our own national sense of enlightened self-interest. 

Andy Gawthorpe, a historian in United States studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands, describes Trump’s behavior as “international vandalism”:

Previous presidents realized that with America’s great power came great responsibility, and often rose to moments like these – or at least attempted to.  Yet the current occupant of the White House has spent his entire term torching international partnerships, trashing America’s reputation as a responsible and trustworthy actor in world affairs, and making it clear he has no interest in accepting the responsibility which comes from being the leader of the richest and most influential country in the world.

He wants to make America “great” but his conception of greatness would be unrecognizable to every other post-war president. If international vandalism is all he has to offer in the face of the greatest global crisis of a generation, then the world we inhabit might soon be, too.


   

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