This past September 11, the letter, if not the spirit, of the exhortation to “never forget” was amply realized by the thousands who took to social media to note that Donald Trump’s negligent non-response to the Covid-19 pandemic has killed approximately 6300 percent more Americans than the 9/11 hijackers. 

The release of Bob Woodward’s new book revealed that Trump knew that the virus was “deadly stuff” and highly contagious, yet openly admitted that he “wanted to always play it down” at precisely the same time in February when he was insisting that Covid-19 was no big deal and would simply “disappear.”

Does this establish, once and for all, that Trump bears significant responsibility for America’s atrocious coronavirus death toll? If he was negligent, was he really criminally negligent? Worse than negligent?

The writer Molly Jong-Fast thinks it’s an open and shut case. “It’s remarkable that in these interviews, the president of the United States confessed to fucking manslaughter,” she said in The New Abnormal, a podcast from the Daily Beast. Her co-host Rick Wilson upped the ante:

No American has killed more of their fellow Americans in this country than Donald Trump, except for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson fucking Davis. No one has a body count to rival Trump’s. He knew it. He knew it was there. He did it. He let it happen. It is the most unbelievable and horrifying outcome that we can imagine.

Naturally, this is far from clear to everyone. Ross Douthat, in a New York Times column on the question of Trump’s culpability, maintains that, compared to “similarly positioned and sized countries,” America’s pandemic response under Trump “looks more mediocre and less uniquely catastrophic.” The Trump administration may have failed to meet high American expectations, but it’s hard to cast him as a murderous world-historical villain, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to compare him to Osama bin Laden’s kamikaze henchmen, if he performed about as well as a typical leader of a typical liberal democracy.

Ben Shapiro, who is irked by all the unfavorable comparisons to 9/11, also thinks Trump’s largely off the hook: 

Is it, though? Well, let’s see.

Shapiro’s conservatism is less idiosyncratic and more representative than Douthat’s, so it’s useful to dig into the thinking behind his tweet. In any case, I suspect that Douthat is making some of the same mistakes.

Shapiro’s stance on the pandemic has been something like the “lukewarmist” stance on climate change. He doesn’t deny any of the basic science, but is quick to argue that the threat is smaller than “alarmists” imagine, while the risk of harm from “overreaction” is greater. This position, clearly expressed by his March 11 piece, “Our Fears About Coronavirus Are Overblown,” accords well with the strongly anti-anti-Trump yet not exactly pro-Trump tightrope walk that has allowed him to portray himself as independent-minded while keeping him in good graces with his Trump-loving right-wing audience.

Now, Shapiro doesn’t contest America’s horrifying body count. But he’s committed nevertheless to the idea that our country has been gripped by panic and overreaction and isn’t taking the psychological and economic costs of lockdowns seriously enough.

However, as Puja Olhaver and I pointed out in the Times, the countries that beat the virus early did so primarily through quick action on testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation (TTSI), which made severe, lengthy shutdowns unnecessary. That our federal government failed to act at all to implement the one proven strategy for rapidly reducing rates of infection, which is therefore also the one proven strategy for swiftly returning to relatively normal economic and social life, suggests that the United States has suffered greatly from extreme under-reaction to the virus. The economically, socially, and psychologically damaging distancing measures that Shapiro rightly laments would have radically truncated, or even avoided altogether, had the Trump administration done what successful countries did. Testing and tracing is not some kind of secret, esoteric strategy. Epidemiologists and public health experts have been calling for it, over and over again, since the virus hit our shores.  

But Shapiro’s view of testing seems to be that it was always “unrealistic” to think that the United States could manage to do the needed level of testing and contact tracing. And he says that those clamoring for more of it have been making this unrealistic demand merely “for political purposes … to imply that the Trump administration is capable of doing a thing it can’t do.”

Clearly, I think this is deeply mistaken. But it’s easy to see how it all this adds up to the conclusion that Trump is practically guiltless. From this perspective, there’s little reason to see the administration’s response as especially mismanaged or otherwise lacking — which is precisely what Douthat argues. If this were your view, I’m sure it would be grating to see people attributing pandemic deaths to the president, and then comparing them to the indisputable mass murder of the 9/11 attack.

The problem is that you can’t arrive at anything resembling this conclusion without ignoring the administration’s total failure to even attempt a large-scale TTSI program. I spent months as part of a working group out of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics that developed a practical plan for testing, tracing, and supported isolation. It included, as an essential component, a plan to ramp up the production of tests and the processing of test results at the level and speed that would be necessary to use TTSI to quickly suppress the virus nationwide. A lot would have needed to happen to execute this plan, but it was in the president’s power to make it happen. The pandemic could have been effectively over by now, as it is in many countries around the world. It really was possible.

That’s why the conclusion to Douthat’s piece is profoundly misguided. He writes:

[T]he peer-country evidence suggests that to take the pre-emptive, creative and draconian steps that might have actually suppressed the virus, and in the process saved that hundred thousand or more extra lives, would have probably required presidential greatness, not merely replacement-level competence. We can say without a doubt that Trump whiffed when this call for greatness came. But distinguishing between Trump’s incompetence and what an average president might have managed is harder, so long as so many peer-country death tolls look like ours.

It’s significant that Douthat’s column doesn’t mention testing even once. But his argument simply falls apart once you focus on it. 

First of all, “pre-emptive, creative, and draconian steps” were not necessary to suppress the virus. There was nothing “preemptive” about Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand’s implementation of TTSI, other than the fact that they had a “playbook” and were ready to put it into action. Their response therefore wasn’t especially “creative.” Early and aggressive testing and contact tracing is a tried and true strategy. That’s why it is in their playbooks. That’s why it is in our playbook, which the Trump administration completely ignored.

The fact that the United States’ Center for Disease Control has long been the world’s leader in research, knowledge, experience, and capacity for the control of communicable diseases is important. A number of the public health authorities in the countries that succeeded in using TTSI to suppress the virus have mentioned that they have modeled themselves after the CDC. Shouldn’t we consider countries that aspired to become America’s peers in disease control — that owe their success in controlling Covid-19 in part because they modeled themselves after the CDC — as the relevant set of peer-countries? Yes, we should. 

Not only have most of these countries looked to us for leadership in disease control for decades, none of them are wealthier than the U.S. And none but Germany comes even close to the U.S. in terms of medical research, innovation, drug development and medical manufacturing. You don’t need to believe in American exceptionalism to see that, until Trump came along, America truly was exceptional in terms of its capacity for a huge pandemic control push.

Trump was not called to greatness. He wasn’t even called to above-average competence. He was called to implement a game-plan we’d already written with a disease control bureaucracy that was the envy of the world, the administrative infrastructure and personnel of the world’s most dominant and powerful state, and a practically bottomless well of resources. (None of our peer countries has the massive advantage of minting the world’s reserve currency.) If Trump had merely said, “Tell me what to do!,” had done it, and otherwise had stayed out of the way, I believe it’s almost certain that at least 100,000 dead Americans would now be alive.

But Trump didn’t just fail to do what needed to be done. He didn’t just refuse to do what needed to be done. He actively and aggressively undermined both federal and state efforts to contain the virus. For example, he abruptly ended U.S. cooperation with China on disease surveillance. We could have had a much clearer picture of what was coming, which would have allowed us to gear up and contain community spread before it got out of control, but we didn’t. Trump inexplicably hollowed out our global public health presence before the pandemic, and kept doing it throughout. And he contradicted and undermined his own administration’s pandemic control authorities at every turn, wreaking havoc on the federal government’s immense capacity to respond. If he’d done nothing at all, many thousands of Americans would still be alive. 

Trump could have activated the Defense Production Act very early on to rapidly increase the supply of tests and testing facilities, but he never used this emergency power to ensure an adequate testing supply. He has been at times overtly hostile to a big push on testing, largely because a big testing push would make the pandemic look like a big problem, and he’d assured everyone that it wasn’t, first because he was worried that it would spook the markets, but then because it actually became a big problem, due to his initial dismissiveness. But Trump refuses to take responsibility for anything, except for everything good that’s ever happened. He has questioned the utility of testing on the flabbergasting grounds that you can’t have a high infection rate if you don’t test for infections. He has consistently, actively and purposefully misled the public about the scale and adequacy American testing in order to pooh-pooh the idea that we need to do more of it.

The administration’s adamant refusal to use federal power and resources to implement nationwide TTSI (which really, really, really could have gotten us to suppression by now) is why the working group I was part of ended up promoting exotic interstate compacts as test procurement vehicles. States acting one by one don’t have the heft necessary to move markets at the scale we needed. But if we were going to get a big TTSI push at all, it would have to be implemented by the states, because Trump was actively preventing the federal government from doing anything about it.  

However, the states were going broke and would need federal money to do it on their own. Well, our group also worked to get funding for testing (and all the rest) into the fourth coronavirus relief bill, which McConnell has refused to take up in the Senate. Before it was fully clear that the majority leader never really intended to pass a serious bill at all (and was using liability reform as a lame excuse), it became evident that Trump’s antipathy to testing made Senate Republicans wary of supporting even the relatively modest level of funding (compared to the money allocated to economic relief) that it would take to finance effective state-based efforts. As a result, the patchwork of state and local TTSI programs that do exist are underfunded and inadequate to the scale of the crisis.

As a consequence, states and municipalities have been forced to rely far more heavily on partial lockdowns and mask mandates than they would have had Trump done anything at all to do the thing that works. Yet their reward for implementing these responsible, second-best public health measures has been Trump’s vocal, scornful opposition, which has actively undermined their effectiveness by encouraging resistance and non-compliance from his supporters in their jurisdictions. It is by now abundantly clear that Trump’s sole purpose in all this antagonism toward states and municipalities trying their damndest in the horrible situation that he put them in was to force their economies back to a semblance of normality in an effort to mitigate the recession enough to squeak out re-election. He knows that this is killing Americans. He just doesn’t care.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many lives would have been saved if Trump had been a president of below-average competence who simply followed the lead of his administration’s own disease control experts. David Leonhardt’s estimate of 145,000, which is the number of Americans who would be alive if our share of global virus deaths was the same as our share of the world population, seems reasonable. But we don’t have a sub-replacement-level president of below-average competence. We have a sociopathic narcissist who knew exactly how dangerous the virus is, but who was dead-set from the very beginning on lying to the public and actively opposing and undermining his own government’s capacity for effective pandemic response. And all because he thought it would make him look bad, hurt the economy, and hurt his re-election chances.

Whatever that is, it’s worse than mere manslaughter. It wasn’t passive. It wasn’t accidental. It wasn’t unavoidable. It took active malice to kill this many Americans. It dishonors their memory, as well as the skill and competence of America’s stellar but stymied disease control officials, to let him off the hook.

Photo Credit: “Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0