We still don’t know precisely what caused Donald Trump to flip in his position on the coronavirus. On March 9, 2020, he was tweeting that people die of the flu all the time and no one should freak out about it. On March 11, two days later, he went the other direction, promising to use the “full power of the Federal Government to deal with our current challenge of the CoronaVirus!”
Various writers have drummed up a range of reasons. Deborah Birx reports that Trump shifted because a friend died. Jared Kushner says that he simply listened to reason. Mike Pence says he was persuaded that his staff would respect him more. As I’ve written, “No question (and based on all existing reports) that he found himself surrounded by ‘trusted advisors’ amounting to about 5 or so people (including Mike Pence and Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb).”
Regardless, something was set in motion on March 10th. Two days later, we got travel restrictions, then the emergency declaration and all power granted to the National Security Council, the invocation of the Staford Act, and finally the full lockdowns of all public and private venues.
All the books say that Trump turned the corner on March 14 and 15, leading to the famous press conference the next day. But this doesn’t fit the timeline at all, and I find it entirely believable that the story was just that which all interested parties agreed to tell. The decisions were made a few days earlier.
What actually happened on the 10th? We don’t know. No reporter or interviewer has asked him the question. Most information about this day is completely classified so nothing is available by requests based on the Freedom of Information Act. Thus far, we are left to speculate on what caused Trump to destroy the strong economy that he believed he created. How could this have happened?
What follows is fictional but based on all existing information. The scene is the Situation Room in the White House, say, sometime in the afternoon on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
TRUMP: Good to see everyone, but why are all these people from military intelligence here? I did not see them on the list provided to me by my staff.
FAUCI: Let me explain Mr. President. Yesterday you sent out a Tweet that compared the coronavirus from China with the flu. I must say that until very recently I agreed with you. I have an article forthcoming in the New England Journal of Medicine that says this more or less. I even suggest lockdowns would not be necessary. However, my staff has briefed me on some points that are far more disturbing. My information is highly credible, based on first-hand knowledge from my Deputy Assistant who was just in Wuhan last week. But in sharing this information, we must insist on the highest level of security, which is why these officials are here.
TRUMP: Please continue.
FAUCI: In late January, I and my colleagues around the world, including in the UK and some in China, received some very disturbing information concerning a lab in China with whom we had variously worked over the years. As you know, your trade policies and tariffs have created quite a stir and not just within China but among many major corporate partners around the world.
TRUMP: I am aware.
FAUCI: Many people have worried about retaliation. This does not always occur with trade policies and tariffs. Our intelligence community has worked for decades to assess a much more serious risk. And here is where I just mention a terrible possibility, namely, a biological weapon.
TRUMP: Hold on. Are you telling me that China might have intentionally created and released a virus designed to kill Americans? Do others in this room agree?
[A number of heads nod.]
A quick question. Everyone in the media is saying that the possibility of a lab leak is a conspiracy theory not worth the time of day. In fact, Tony, I think I heard you saying that on CNN just the other day. Didn’t your scientists examine the virus and conclude that it came from nature, a market or something, because those people eat disgusting food?
FAUCI: You refer to the Proximal Origins paper from early February. That paper was more speculative than we let on at the time. In fact, there was some debate on how sure we could be. Even some of the authors had doubts but we decided that given the security concerns here, and in the interest of keeping the public calm, it was best to deny the very real possibility of a lab leak. In the meantime, more information has reached us that suggests not only that it came from a lab but that it might have been a deliberate leak.
TRUMP: Matt, do you agree with this?
POTTINGER: Mr. President, I know of no information to contradict what Tony is saying and also know of many sources who would confirm this scenario. This crisis we face today might be without precedent. It also requires a response without precedent.
TRUMP: Obviously, this is not the kind of knowledge we want out there. I get why we had to hold this special meeting with all this security.
POTTINGER: In some ways, Mr. President, it is a tribute to your prowess in dealing with China. Your policies have created a genuine crisis. That the CCP would have to resort to such tactics should be regarded as a personal tribute. Your leadership has changed everything.
TRUMP: Let’s cut to the chase. What are you expecting me to do about this? What are our protocols?
FAUCI: We have prepared for moments like this. Containing the virus is obviously essential. I resisted your idea at the time but looking back, I can see that your instincts were exactly correct about stopping travel from China back in January.
TRUMP: I told you!
FAUCI: Yes you did, and you were right. I was wrong to resist you. In fact, I would ask you to trust your same instincts on dealing with Europe, the UK, and other places, even Canada and Australia, where we now know the virus has spread. Should we not also shut down travel from those places, perhaps even calling American nationals back to prepare for a full-scale war?
TRUMP: Consider it done. Jared, can you start working on that right now?
KUSHNER: Yes, Mr. President. Perhaps a national address for the day after tomorrow.
TRUMP: What else?
FAUCI: As you know, my staff and many people from the World Health Organization took a trip to China three weeks ago. They observed how Xi Jinping was able to rally the people to lock down in Wuhan and a few other cities. People stayed home. Businesses and schools closed. In fact, everything closed for two weeks. The virus proved no match for these policies, which we call social distancing. They were matched by government power, of course, but Xi doesn’t lack that in China. The virus burned itself out quickly once it was not able to find new hosts.
You are as great a leader as Xi and probably more popular in this country than he is in his. I do believe you can beat China at its own game by replicating and improving these proven methods. China thinks we cannot do that here, which is why they were confident that they could ruin us with this virus. But perhaps you can rally the nation to achieve the same. That would confound all their plans. Otherwise, if we do nothing, our models tell us we could be facing millions of deaths.
TRUMP: Wow, that’s extreme, but you are right that I’m more popular here than he is there. If anyone could do this, I could. I’ve never heard of a president closing a whole economy but I was elected to take bold decisions in the national interest. Preventing millions of deaths seems like a good reason.
PENCE: We will back you at every step.
BIRX: That’s right, Mr. President. We’ll be here for you all the way. I can rally young people to do their part. We’ll have a national movement to stay home and defeat this virus, similar to what we did with AIDS but much more elaborate.
FAUCI: Mr. President, I have Scott, your former head of the FDA on the phone now. Go ahead, Scott.
GOTTLIEB: From what I’ve heard, this group seems to be on the right track. I would say in terms of the lockdowns that we should go farther than we think we should. Then we will have it about right.
FAUCI: I’m glad we’ve got Scott on our side. As you know, he is now on the board of Pfizer. He has what I believe you will find to be very good news. Xi believed he would defeat us with this virus but he doesn’t have access to our level of sophistication in terms of pharmaceuticals. For more than 20 years, through my office, we’ve been working on a new vaccine technology that can take development from 5 to 10 years to a mere matter of months. Scott, you said that you might have one ready by the summer, is that right?
GOTTLIEB: Yes, if not earlier. That is what our scientists are saying. We’ve already sequenced the virus. It should not take long.
FAUCI: Certainly in time for election season?
GOTTLIEB: Most certainly. It could even be weeks away, provided we get full clearance from the FDA.
TRUMP: I’ll make that happen. Those bureaucrats are no match for me. You say that China has no vaccine? If not, that means we can beat them at their own game. But I do worry. Would the economic damage be large? I’m popular because of my economic policies. I don’t want to reverse those.
FAUCI: You are referring to what is called collateral damage. It’s not my place to comment on this matter. I’m just a scientist and can only advise on matters of public health.
KUSHNER: You have closed your casinos and reopened them with no long-term damage. In fact, every time you have had to make dramatic decisions, the results have been better than anyone imagined.
PENCE: Mr. President, if I may. Closing the economy will impose short-term pain, no doubt, which we can alleviate with some payments to businesses that are harmed. But if you reopen soon and then we have a vaccine, you will have achieved something that could in fact guarantee your reelection. Not even Wilson, FDR, or Lincoln were able to do something this great on this scale.
KUSHNER: He is right that this could guarantee your legacy in history.
TRUMP: Are we talking about calling in the National Guard to enforce this?
BIRX: Oh nothing like that. We can rally the people to do the right thing. Wash hands. Use Sanitizers. Stop meetings. Stop concerts. Stop gatherings. Just stay put for a while. Reserve the hospitals for anyone who is infected. We get them the ventilators they need right away. Patriotism should guarantee compliance. Only you could do this, Mr. President.
TRUMP: This is all very alarming of course, and I want no leaks, not today, not ever. We need to pitch this to the American people calmly and with great authority. I think you are all correct that people will follow my lead on this. You have all made your case. Let’s get to work. I’ll send a tweet tomorrow promising to use the full power of the federal government. We are going to beat this. You are about to see Trump in action as never before.
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