Branch Covidian: The Virus Denier in Chief Tries a Rewrite

By Jeff Robbins

March 24, 2020 5 min read

When it comes to pithy lines about dishonesty, writer Mary McCarthy's takedown of playwright Lillian Hellman remains a timeless classic. "Everything she writes is a lie," said McCarthy, "including 'and' and 'the.'" McCarthy died before Donald Trump became president, and wherever she is, she is undoubtedly glad she did. But any literary exaggeration by Hellman is mere chicken feed compared with the steady flow of falsehoods to which the nation is subjected daily by the president, who's responsible for bringing the word "pathological," previously used only by medical professionals, into common usage. As Trump likes to say: "No one could have imagined it. We've never seen anything like it." On the matter of presidential lying, at least, President Trump is spot on. Last week's front-runner for Exhibit A was Trump's claim that he recognized the coronavirus as a public health crisis way before others. "I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," he informed us. This, of course, was the usual hogwash from the perennial hogwash peddler.

Asked on Jan. 22, "Are you worried about a pandemic at this point?" the man who knew it was a pandemic before everyone else replied: "No, not at all. And we have it totally under control." Asked on Jan. 31 whether he was concerned about the coronavirus, Trump said, "Well, we've pretty much shut it down." On Feb. 10, he denied that there was anything to worry about. "A lot of people think it goes away in April," he said. On Feb. 26, the president told us that the virus was about to disappear. "Within a couple of days it's going to be down to close to zero," he said. On Feb. 28, he offered this inanity: "Almost everybody that we see is getting better, and it could be everybody." The next day, the president tried to sell America the epidemiological Brooklyn Bridge, stating that a coronavirus vaccine would be available "very quickly" and "very rapidly." On March 2, he doubled down with this lie: "They're going to have a vaccine relatively soon."

On March 6, he lied about the availability of coronavirus testing. "As of right now and yesterday," he said, "anybody who needs a test gets a test. They're there. They have the tests, and the tests are beautiful." The same day, asked by a reporter, "What do you say to Americans who are concerned you're not taking this seriously enough and that your statements don't match what your health experts are saying?" he snapped and replied, "That's CNN fake news." On March 15, when asked about the virus, the president lied: "It is something we have tremendous control over."

In government as in other sectors, denial and lying go hand in hand with incompetence, and the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus is a historic example. Warned directly of the approaching pandemic in January, it did nothing to prepare the public or the health system to confront it. Asked on March 16, "On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your response to this crisis?" Trump didn't hesitate to congratulate himself. "I'd rate it 10," he said. Shocker. In the meantime, he continued to refuse his authority to commandeer the production of desperately needed masks, protective equipment and ventilators, on which American lives depend. Instead, he told the nations' governors that they are on their own: "The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we're not a shipping clerk."

Let's face it: The Trump presidency is in shambles. The ceaseless lying is a big reason why. The incompetence will not stop until the lying does, and it was obvious long ago that the lying will not stop until someone else occupies the Oval Office.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

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