With the release this week of Bob Woodward’s new book, we’re about to find out what happens when it becomes clear, beyond any reasonable debate, that President Donald Trump’s bottomless mendacity has caused American deaths. I fear the reaction (or lack thereof) among his hardcore supporters will be exactly as he once predicted.
On Jan. 23, 2016, candidate Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa, marveled at the loyalty of his followers like this: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
What’s incredible is that a candidate could publicly say something so twisted and still be elected. Yet, in the more than four years since Trump gave us that vivid image, he has repeatedly said other things publicly that should have been disqualifying for a candidate — and for a president — in any civilized society.
These aren’t my words, or the words of some anonymous source. They’re his.
Sen. John McCain, captured and tortured in Vietnam, wasn’t a hero, because “I like people who weren’t captured,” said Trump (who had publicly bragged about squirming out of the draft). Confronted with allegations he raped a journalist, Trump’s reaction wasn’t to express horror that anyone would suggest he was capable of such a monstrosity; it was: “She’s not my type.” We all learned from the “Access Hollywood” video that he considers it one of the perks of fame to grab unsuspecting women by the genitals.
When white supremacists clashed with anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia — and a young anti-racism protester named Heather Heyer was killed by one of the white supremacists who deliberately plowed his car into the crowd — Trump’s assessment was that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Standing on a stage in Helsinki next to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Trump was similarly open-minded to evil. Asked about the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence that Russia had interfered in America’s election, the leader of the free world took Putin’s word, saying, “He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
America’s great cities are “rodent infested” and “disgusting.” Desperately impoverished nations are “shithole countries.” Elected members of Congress who happen to be women of color — including those born in America — should “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.”
Lest anyone think Trump’s malice is entirely verbal, it’s often matched with action, as he demonstrated after Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified to Trump’s clear misconduct regarding Ukraine in last year’s impeachment hearings. Trump, emboldened by the Republican Senate’s unjustified acquittal, not only fired Vindman for his truthful testimony, but also fired Vindman’s twin brother, a federal employee who had nothing to do with the impeachment proceedings. This is the kind of man he is.
After all this, The Atlantic’s recent report of Trump privately disparaging captured or dead American soldiers as “suckers” and “losers” for their sacrifice should have come as no surprise. Hanging such explosive allegations on anonymous sources would normally be journalistically iffy, but context matters: It’s not like this is out of character. Trump has said arguably worse in public. The story was fundamentally believable even before other media outlets — including Fox News(!) — confirmed key elements of it. This is, again, the kind of man he is.
Still, it was comforting to see that Woodward’s revelations last week weren’t based on anonymous sources, but on Trump himself, in hours of audio recordings. Trump admitted to Woodward early on that he understood the coronavirus was “deadly stuff” that threatened the nation — even as he told the nation it was an overblown issue that would “go away.”
“I wanted to always play it down,” he told Woodward in February. (February!) “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Even if you believe the shaky premise that lying to the nation is a legitimate leadership tool, how does that jibe with Trump holding big, maskless rallies knowing this “deadly stuff” was out there? Or threatening to withhold aid from states whose governors had criticized him? Or pressuring businesses and schools to reopen prematurely?
America has among the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world. How many of those deaths might have been prevented had the nation’s leader told the country publicly what he was telling people privately, instead of insisting the opposite? We’ll never know that number — but it’s clearly more than that one hypothetical American body sprawled out on Fifth Avenue.
There are two kinds of Trump supporters: those who recognize his rotten character but don’t care; and those who have convinced themselves his character has been unjustly maligned by the words of others. For that second group, it must be more difficult by the day to keep up that self-delusion. The central evidence of Trump’s unfitness is in his own words. It always has been.