Sunday, May 10, 2020

Trump's Blundering War Against Coronavirus

      President Trump and two of his henchmen have now served notice that they care not one whit about putting more American lives at risk during the coronavirus pandemic in pursuit of their political goals: in particular, Trump’s prospects for re-election in November. Trump encouraged states last week [May 4] to disregard the administration’s own guidelines issued last month even as the infectious disease experts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, were stressing the risks of reopening businesses and easing guidelines before the data showed progress in containing the coronavirus.
      Along with Trump, the Senate’s majority leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, decided to risk public health in the District of Columbia by summoning the Senate back into business. McConnell’s goal was not so much to tend to the nation’s unfinished business, but to approve one more Trump nominee for the federal bench and elevate a protégé, the young firebrand conservative Justin Walker, to the federal appeals court for the D.C. Circuit.
      Attorney General William Barr gave added support to Trump’s political agenda by putting the Justice Department’s clout on the side of the Trump-supporting protesters clamoring for governors to ease pandemic-related closures, the risks of more contagion be damned. Barr issued a memorandum directing two of his deputies to monitor state and local policies and take action “if necessary” to correct any policies that “could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.
      “We do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr wrote in the April 27 memorandum, “but the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”
      Clausewitz famously observed that war is “politics by other means.” As commander in chief of the war against the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has embodied that adage from the very start. He has seen the pandemic not as a public health issue but a political obstacle to his re-election. And, thus, at least in the short term, he did what he could to keep the reported numbers down — no ramped-up testing, for example — and to avoid spooking the stock markets.
      The fates, however, were against him. By minimizing the dangers at the outset, Trump only made it easier for the virus to spread, with the result now that unemployment has reached levels unseen since the Depression and the United States leads the world in the number of lives lost to the virus. As wartime leader, Trump would have done well to recall history’s oft-taught lesson that the easiest mistake in war is to underestimate the strength of the enemy, putting more lives at risk.
      On Capitol Hill, a leading Senate Democrat mocked McConnell’s claimed need to rush the senators back to Washington, in flagrant defiance of social distancing guidelines. “It’s certainly hard to argue that this is part of a response to a national health emergency in the United States,” Illinois’ Richard Durbin told reporters [May 4]. “When the majority leader comes to us and says, ‘We have important nominations that deal with national security,’ I’m sorry, but Judge Walker is not one of them.”
      Beyond Barr’s meddlesome memorandum, the attorney general also authorized the Justice Department to file a statement of interest in a pending case brought by a church on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, that is challenging a citation for violating Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order banning in-person religious services with more than 10 persons. The church claims that the 16 congregants maintained social distancing in the 225-seat sanctuary, but public health experts are unanimous in warning that the risk of contagion is inevitable even if small crowds do their best to keep their distance.
      The government’s designated public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did their best to prescribe the steps needed to minimize the spread of the virus, but Trump’s White House apparently thinks they know best. The CDC guidelines, now shelved, suggested, among other steps, that public transit systems keep passengers separated on buses and trains. They also called on churches to consider limiting the sharing of frequently touched objects, such as hymnals, prayer books, and collection plates.
      The CDC experts have warned from the outset that the coronavirus spreads easily via hard surface contamination through contact as seemingly innocuous as touching doorknobs, elevator buttons, or the like. In White House meetings, however, chief of staff Mark Meadows and the White House liaison to the evangelist community Roger Severino were described in the New York Times’s account as arguing that the steps were too prescriptive in areas with relatively few coronavirus cases and risked infringing on religious freedom. Meanwhile, Trump himself ostentatiously refuses to wear a face mask in public, as recommended for the general public.
      To be sure, millions of Americans are very tired of worrying about the coronavirus and suffering from the effects of shutting down the economy and social intercourse in an effort to contain the pandemic. A true leader would summon Americans to fight on, with patience and resolve behind steady leadership, just as Churchill did with Britain under attack and FDR did in the United States. Alas, the United States’ leader today prefers instead to lead Americans into the valley of death in a blundering war that has already claimed more American lives than Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

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