“We saw with the completely bungled plasma statements that when you start pressuring people to say optimistic things, they go completely off the rails”, Bill Gates told Bloomberg Television, expressing palpable concern about lost credibility for America’s trusted public health agencies during the pandemic.
“Historically, just like the CDC was viewed as the best in the world, the FDA had that same reputation as a top-notch regulator”, Gates went on to say, before lamenting the emergence of “some cracks with some of the things they’ve said at the commissioner level”.
Yes, “cracks”. That’s a euphemistic way of saying that trust in the FDA and the CDC has been undermined by political meddling at the highest levels.
What’s particularly pernicious about this situation is that, with appropriate apologies to anyone for whom this generalization doesn’t apply, Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters have demonstrated time and again that they are vulnerable to conspiratorial narratives, including the suggestion that the coronavirus is a “hoax” and that “deep state” operatives are working to use the virus against The White House. Trump has, of course, floated those narratives (among others) on innumerable occasions, including his infamous tweet about the FDA, which preceded the “bungled plasma statements” referenced by Gates.
The tragic irony of the Trump presidency is that there are, in fact, conspiracies afoot — and perpetually at that. But they are all perpetrated by Trump and his surrogates, which means that the nation’s premier purveyor of false conspiracy theories is engaged in all manner of real conspiracies, ranging from a scheme to underfund the postal service to a plot aimed at compelling Ukraine to implicate political rivals in financial chicanery to tampering with CDC data to strong-arming the FDA during a pandemic. And that’s to say nothing of whatever William Barr is cheffing up with John Durham in the kitchen over at the Justice department.
Note that none of that is an attempt to editorialize. This is not an opinion column. The postal service saga is well documented and ongoing. The Ukraine soap opera got the president impeached. The CDC allegations have been reported by multiple media outlets, and while “strong-arming” is a term that carries a negative connotation, I would simply point out that when the President of the United States makes accusations against government agencies on Twitter, it’s difficult to escape the notion that the intent is to engineer outcomes.
All of these very real schemes are just as corrosive (if not more so) to America’s democracy as the president’s penchant for goading his followers into believing in conspiracies that have little or no basis in reality.
This toxic cocktail turned deadly during the pandemic, as many supporters were encouraged (tacitly or explicitly by Trump) to defy local public health guidelines, even as the president privately told Bob Woodward that the virus was highly contagious and deadly, and that he preferred to “play it down”.
Last week, Politico reported that in the months since Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official who boasts zero medical experience and has no scientific background, took the lead on communications at the Department of Health and Human Services, “there have been substantial efforts to align [the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports] with Trump’s statements, including the president’s claims that fears about the outbreak are overstated, or stop the reports altogether”.
On Sunday, Caputo appeared to delete his verified Twitter account after engaging random netizens in verbal combat. As Bloomberg helpfully recounts, Trump’s top health spokesman “said ‘gas all of them’ while commenting on a post from a self-described journalist who had published a video saying they were about to be tear-gassed [and] described another Twitter user using an epithet for a feminine hygiene product”.
Just to reiterate: This is the man in charge of the administration’s communications strategy around the coronavirus.
And it gets worse. Also on Sunday, Caputo “made outlandish and false accusations that career government scientists were engaging in ‘sedition’ in their handling of the pandemic and that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election”, The New York Times wrote Monday, describing comments made on Facebook, where Caputo encouraged followers to “buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get”.
As if there was any doubt by that point, Caputo seemed to confirm he was experiencing some manner of mental anguish. “I don’t like being alone in Washington”, he said, complaining of “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment”.
Caputo, a friend of Roger Stone’s, subsequently shut down his Facebook account, but not until he told some 800 people who viewed the video that “you understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going”.
Also this week, Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research, told Congress that Louis DeJoy donated more than a half million dollars to Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee in the two months after the postmaster general position opened up. “This level of partisanship undermines public trust in the postal service as an institution”, Graves said, in written testimony to lawmakers.
“We have a crony at the helm of our nation’s postal service”, Democrat Gerry Connolly said, matter-of-factly.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this is an acute crisis of government. Objectively speaking, it isn’t possible to suggest that this is tenable, let alone desirable.
It is obviously the case that Americans are perpetually in the dark about quite a bit under any administration, but this type of outright absurdity has no modern precedent that I’m aware of. It is, colloquially, totally off the rails (as Gates put it).
Coming full circle, one risk going forward on the public health front is that a vaccine, once it becomes available, will be shunned both by the president’s supporters and his detractors. The former are deeply suspicious of the pandemic itself, while the latter don’t trust a vaccine development effort overseen by Trump.
“Many Americans appear reluctant to be vaccinated, even if a vaccine were FDA-approved and available to them at no cost”, Gallup wrote last month, describing the results of a poll. “Asked if they would get such a COVID-19 vaccine, 65% say they would, but 35% would not”.
In a newly released tape from Bob Woodward, Trump describes the mindset at The White House in April, a period during which he was publicly advocating for “packed” churches on Easter Sunday.
“Bob, it’s so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t believe it … I mean you could, you could be in the room … I was in the White House a couple of days ago, meeting with 10 people in the Oval Office and a guy sneezed – innocently. Not a horrible … you know, just a sneeze”, Trump said. “The entire room bailed out, OK? Including me, by the way”.