There are enduring mysteries surrounding the White House decision to issue a lockdown edict on March 16, 2020. The edict has no precedent in the history of governance: “indoor and outdoor venues where groups of people congregate should be closed.” The Bill of Rights was out the window, on the order of one man, and for a virus.
We have a number of sources now, from journalistic ones informed by people who were there the weekend of March 14-15, and also first-hand accounts as well.
The sources are:
- Silent Invasion by Deborah Birx
- Breaking History by Jared Kushner
- Nightmare Scenario by Washington Post reporters by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta
- So Help Me God, by Mike Pence
- Premonition by Michael Lewis
Each one valorizes the decision to lock down, an opinion increasingly deprecated. Indeed, it is hard to find public intellectuals or health officials today who defend it at all, especially in light of the catastrophic consequences and no obvious advantage. For sure, there are those who still have every intention to do it all over again, such as the WHO. The absence of apologies is conspicuous. Still, it’s hard to find a fan of lockdowns these days willing to stick their necks out.
Donald Trump, of course, spent two years defending the decision. These days, he seems to be backing off the old line. More and more, he and those behind him are claiming that he “left it to the states.” That claim is a legal truism in the sense that under the American system, the states are in a position to reject edicts from the White House.
South Dakota did, a fact which proves that it was possible to defy the White House.
At the same time, the White House did everything possible to make sure that everyone complied, from phone calls to outright threats and bribes. To lock down was the easy decision for both blue and red states. Fear was in the air and people and media were clamoring for it.
To what extent is Trump personally culpable? Can we really say that he was an innocent victim of bad advice?
We know for sure that Trump praised China’s response to the virus as early as January 24, 2020, so he was already primed for the decision.
On March 9, 2020, Trump still believed that the virus was manageable without extreme measures.
Only three days later, he shut down travel from Europe, UK, and Australia. The next day, national security took over as policy lead. By the following Monday, he issued the nationwide shutdown order. It was a dramatic turnabout in week’s time.
He was very proud of his actions and bragged about them constantly.
He told all affected by “necessary containment policies” that they will be getting money.
Trump also later condemned Sweden for not locking down.
Trump further insisted that it is not up to the states to decide when to open. He insisted that it was up to him alone. And he said this not two weeks after lockdown but a full month later.
We know for sure that the decision to lockdown took place March 14-15, 2020, on a weekend, inside the White House. Present with Trump were Birx, Kushner, Anthony Fauci, Pence, Scott Gottlieb (Pfizer) on the phone, plus two of Kushner’s friends from the information-tech industry, Nat Turner and Adam Boehler.
So far as we know, that’s it. Those were the people who, on their own (but probably not), decided to conduct history’s most ambitious science experiment.
The story as we know it goes like this. There was a virus circulating around and the main goal in public health was to minimize cases. In retrospect, this was the disastrous presumption because this was not AIDS and not Ebola but a respiratory virus that everyone on the planet earth would get several times. It was destined to become part of the world of pathogens we inhabit along with trillions of others. Our immune systems would need an upgrade as they always have.
That goal of minimization of even elimination was the unquestioned presumption going into this weekend three years ago. The little junta of fools gathered around Trump explained that the reduction of cases was the desiderata on which he should be focused. Xi Jinping locked down and defeated the bug. Trump was at least as good and wonderful as the head of China so he should do the same, or so he believed or so he was convinced..
Trump, known to be a germaphobe and believing strongly in his own prowess, agreed and bought the idea that he could shut down society for two weeks and then turn it on again. His advisers convinced him that this was the right and brave decision to make. After which, he would be celebrated as a great hero.
There is every evidence that he believed this. “If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now,” Trump said at his March 16 presser, “we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus and we’re going to have a big celebration together.”
That perfectly positioned his advisors to come back in two weeks with good news and bad news. The good news is that we are making progress. The bad news is that if he opens now, cases will go up and that will make him a liar. That’s why we need another 30 days, they told him. He approved that. And so on it went until the vaccine was made available. In the meantime, Trump himself lost control and was eventually booted from office.
In this scenario, Trump is the dupe, a man convinced to destroy the America that he promised to make great. Instead, he wrecked it. The fault lies entirely with the bad advisors Fauci, Birx, Kushner, Pence, and Gottlieb. And that is a compelling version of events. Trump was tricked!
That version of events – essentially confirmed by all accounts we have – offers an out for Trump. Maybe. After all, if he really is that gullible, does he not bear at least some responsibility for the decision?
I must say that this is the version of events I’ve long accepted. But actually, as I think about it, this story is self-aggrandizing for the tellers. To say “I convinced the president to shut down the economy” is quite the commentary on their own awesomeness and persuasive power.
What if the real story is slightly different? What if Trump himself was as gung-ho for lockdowns as anyone else in the room? What if he didn’t really need convincing but rather was happy to let others take the “credit” for having convinced him? He is nothing if not a great salesman.
How do we know for sure that Trump was not selling his advisors rather than the reverse? We do not actually know that. The most plausible scenario is that everyone in that hot house of Oval Office power pretension was equally enthusiastic for the most catastrophic public-health decision in modern history.
If this alternative scenario is true, we have another layer of problems on our hands. If the whole thing was accomplished by Trump himself – and honest people have to admit that this is possible – the scenario in the Oval Office in those fateful days changes rather dramatically. It remains a possibility that Trump himself – not Fauci, Birx, Kushner, Pence, or Gottlieb – deserves the main blame for what happened to American rights and liberties. And this blame is deserved not because he was duped but because he was in on it, having changed his mind at some point between March 9 and March 12.
I’m sad to say that there seems to be no evidence to contradict this alternative scenario. And while it is true that the decision doomed his presidency, that does not necessarily mean that he didn’t share enthusiasm for it at the time. And if that is true, we have a completely different scenario on our hands.
If we had some serious journalists with access to him, this is the question they would ask: who got to you to cause from you dismissing the virus on March 9 to just one week later issuing the most extreme edict in American history that disregarded all rights and liberties? Surely he knows the answer.
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