The phone call, the talking points Trump picked up from it, and his subsequent attempts to cover up his alliance with Xi are part of a deep betrayal. The story the president now tells-that he " built the greatest economy in history," that China blindsided him by unleashing the virus, and that Trump saved millions of lives by mobilizing America to defeat it-is a lie. Trump collaborated with Xi, concealed the threat, impeded the U.S. government's response, silenced those who sought to warn the public, and pushed states to take risks that escalated the tragedy. He's personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.
This isn't speculation. All the evidence is in the public record. But the truth, unlike Trump's false narrative, is scattered in different places. It's in emails, leaks, interviews, hearings, scientific reports, and the president's stray remarks. This article puts those fragments together. It documents Trump's interference or negligence in every stage of the government's failure: preparation, mobilization, public communication, testing, mitigation, and reopening.
Trump has always been malignant and incompetent. As president, he has coasted on economic growth, narrowly averted crises of his own making, and corrupted the government in ways that many Americans could ignore. But in the pandemic, his vices-venality, dishonesty, self-absorption, dereliction, heedlessness-turned deadly. They produced lies, misjudgments, and destructive interventions that multiplied the carnage. The coronavirus debacle isn't, as Trump protests, an " artificial problem " that spoiled his presidency. It's the fulfillment of everything he is.
Trump has been asked several times to explain these decisions. He has given two answers. One is that he wanted to save money. " Some of the people we cut, they haven't been used for many, many years," he said in February. "If we have a need, we can get them very quickly. ... I'm a businessperson. I don't like having thousands of people around when you don't need them."
Trump prepared for a war, not for a virus. He wagered that if a pandemic broke out, he could pull together the resources to contain it quickly. He was wrong. But that was just the first of many mistakes.
In early January, Trump was warned about a deadly new virus in China. He was also told that the Chinese government was understating the outbreak. ( See this timeline for a detailed chronology of what Trump knew and when he knew it.) This was inconvenient, because Trump was about to sign a lucrative trade deal with Beijing. "We have a great relationship with China right now, so I don't want to speak badly of anyone," Trump told Laura Ingraham in a Fox News interview on Jan. 10. He added that he was looking forward to a second deal with Xi. When Ingraham asked about China's violations of human rights, Trump begged off. "I'm riding a fine line because we're making ... great trade deals," he pleaded.
His advisers knew the ban would only buy time. They wanted to use that time to fortify America. But Trump had no such plans. On Feb. 1, he recorded a Super Bowl interview with Sean Hannity. Hannity pointed out that the number of known infections in the United States had risen to eight, and he asked Trump whether he was worried. The president brushed him off. " We pretty much shut it down coming in from China," said Trump. That was false: Thanks to loopholes in the ban, the coronavirus strain that would engulf Washington state arrived from China about two weeks later. But at the time of the interview, the ban hadn't even taken effect. The important thing, to Trump, was that he had announced the ban. He was less interested in solving the problem than in looking as though he had solved it. And in the weeks to come, he would argue that the ban had made other protective measures unnecessary.
Three days after the rally in New Hampshire, Trump defended China's censorship of information about the virus. In a radio interview, Geraldo Rivera asked him, "Did the Chinese tell the truth about this?" Trump, in reply, suggested that he would have done what Xi had done. "I think they want to put the best face on it," he said. "If you were running it ... you wouldn't want to run out to the world and go crazy and start saying whatever it is, 'cause you don't want to create a panic." Weeks later, Trump would also excuse Chinese disinformation about the virus, telling Fox New viewers that " every country does it."
Having cowed his health officials, Trump next went after the press. He told Americans to ignore news reports about the virus. On Feb. 26 and Feb. 27, Trump denounced CNN and MSNBC for " panicking markets" by making the crisis "look as bad as possible." He dismissed their reports as "fake" and tweeted, " USA in great shape!" At a rally in South Carolina on Feb. 28, he accused the press of "hysteria," called criticism of his virus policies a "hoax," and insisted that only 15 Americans were infected. Weeks later, he would tell the public not to believe U.S. media reports about Chinese propaganda, either.
He continued to suppress warnings. In April, he claimed that doctors who reported shortages of supplies were faking it. When an acting inspector general released a report that showed supplies were inadequate, Trump dismissed the report and replaced her. When a Navy captain wrote a letter seeking help for his infected crew, Trump endorsed the captain's demotion. The letter " shows weakness," he said. "We don't want to have letter-writing campaigns where the fake news finds a letter or gets a leak."
In his interview with Wallace, which aired July 19, Trump conceded nothing. He called Fauci an alarmist and repeated that the virus would "disappear." He excoriated governors for "not allowing me to have rallies" and accused them of keeping businesses closed to hurt him in the election. He claimed that "masks cause problems" and said people should feel free not to wear them. He threatened to defund schools unless they resumed in-class instruction. As to the rising number of infections, Trump scoffed that "many of those cases shouldn't even be cases," since they would "heal automatically." By testing so many people, he groused, health care workers were "creating trouble for the fake news to come along and say, 'Oh, we have more cases.' "
It's hard to believe a president could be this callous and corrupt. It's hard to believe one person could get so many things wrong or do so much damage. But that's what happened. Trump knew we weren't ready for a pandemic, but he didn't prepare. He knew China was hiding the extent of the crisis, but he joined in the cover-up. He knew the virus was spreading in the United States, but he said it was vanishing. He knew we wouldn't find it without more tests, but he said we didn't need them. He delayed mitigation. He derided masks. He tried to silence anyone who told the truth. And in the face of multiple warnings, he pushed the country back open, reigniting the spread of the disease.
Now Trump asks us to reelect him. "We had the greatest economy in the history of the world," he told Fox News on Wednesday. "Then we got hit with the plague from China." But now, he promised, "We're building it again." In Trump's story, the virus is a foreign intrusion, an unpleasant interlude, a stroke of bad luck. But when you stand back and look at the full extent of his role in the catastrophe, it's amazing how lucky we were. For three years, we survived the most ruthless, reckless, dishonest president in American history. Then our luck ran out.