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The reality that Joe Biden is about to become president, and Kamala Harris vice president, is sinking in across Washington, and we now have some indications of what that’s going to mean.
Stories about what exactly happened in the Trump administration are coming out, and they are not pretty. For members of the administration, politics superseded everything — even our lives.
Wednesday, Representative James Clyburn (D-SC), who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, revealed documents from senior appointees in the Trump administration overriding the work of the career officials in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those documents show that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services called for dealing with the coronavirus crisis by pursuing a strategy of “herd immunity,” deliberately spreading the coronavirus to try to infect as many people as possible. Their theory was that this approach would minimize the dangers of the pandemic. While carrying out this plan, they downplayed what they were doing, tried to hide the dangers of the virus, and blamed the career scientists who objected to this strategy as death rates rose.
Although the White House has tried to distance itself from senior Health and Human Services Adviser Paul Alexander, last summer he was widely perceived to speak for his boss Michael Caputo, the Trump-appointed Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, and for the White House itself. Alexander, a part-time university professor from Canada, defended Trump against scientists, accusing CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat of lying when she provided accurate public information about the worsening pandemic. When she suggested everyone should wear a mask, he claimed: “Her aim is to embarrass the President.” Alexander attacked Anthony Fauci for his attempts to protect Americans. “He just won’t stop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” wrote Alexander on July 3, 2020 (yes, I counted the exclamation points); “does he think he is the President???”
Alexander advocated spreading the infection to younger Americans. “So the bottom line is if it is more infectiouness [sic] now, the issue is who cares?” he wrote. “If it is causing more cases in young, my word is who cares…as long as we make sensible decisions, and protect the elderely [sic] and nursing homes, we must go on with life….who cares if we test more and get more positive tests.”
Alexander wrote to Caputo: “There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non–high-risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD.” On the same day, he wrote: “Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected…”
On July 24, he wrote to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Caputo: “It may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected” as a strategy to get “natural immunity…natural exposure.” This argument that illuminates Trump’s insistence this summer that schools and colleges must open.
But the idea that young people are safe from the virus is wrong. Today, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that while Americans older than 65 have borne the brunt of the coronavirus, young adults are suffering terribly. From March through July, there were almost 12,000 more deaths than expected among adults from 25 to 44. Young Black and Hispanic Americans make up not just a disproportionate number of that group of victims; they are a majority. Those extraordinary death rates have continued. Younger adults are indeed endangered by the coronavirus, and the idea it is harmless to them “has simply not been borne out by emerging data,” doctors Jeremy Samuel Faust, Harlan M. Krumholz, and Rochelle P. Walensky — Biden’s pick to run the CDC — wrote in the New York Times.
Another report released Wednesday showcases two former CDC political appointees who are now speaking out to call attention to the silencing of career scientists at the agency. Kyle McGowan, a former chief of staff at the CDC, and his deputy Amanda Campbell watched as political appointees in Washington ignored scientists, censored doctors’ messages to the public, and cut the agency’s budget. “It was… like a hand grasping something, and it slowly closes, closes, closes, closes until you realize that, middle of the summer, it has a complete grasp on everything at the CDC,” McGowan told New York Times reporter Noah Weiland. “Every time that the science clashed with the messaging, messaging won.”
Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize–winning fact-checking website from the Poynter Institute, named the downplaying and denial of the seriousness of coronavirus its “Lie of the Year.”
It has become clear that the administration dropped the ball in other important ways. We have more information now about the extensive computer hack that appears to have been conducted by operatives from the Russian government. It’s bad. Hackers placed malware on commercial network-management software upgrades to gain access to government computers, along with those of major U.S. companies, as far back as last March. They have been able to root around in our secrets for months. Hackers accessed the Treasury and Commerce Departments, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and parts of the Pentagon, among other targets. The intrusion was discovered on December 8, when the cybersecurity company FireEye realized it had been hacked and alerted the FBI.
The FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), issued a joint statement acknowledging “a significant and ongoing cybersecurity campaign” and indicated they are not sure yet what has been hit. “This is a developing situation, and while we continue to work to understand the full extent of this campaign, we know this compromise has affected networks within the federal government.” It is clear the U.S. has been hit hard: Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has cut short an overseas trip to come home and deal with the crisis.
In the New York Times, Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s former Homeland Security Adviser said, “The magnitude of this national security breach is hard to overstate.” He insisted the U.S. must call out Russia for this attack (assuming it is confirmed that that country is, indeed, behind the attack). “Trump must make it clear to Vladimir Putin that these actions are unacceptable. The U.S. military and intelligence community must be placed on increased alert; all elements of national power must be placed on the table.” He went on to say that “President Trump is on the verge of leaving behind a federal government, and perhaps a large number of major industries, compromised by the Russian government. He must use whatever leverage he can muster to protect the United States and severely punish the Russians.”
The New York Times called this breach “among the greatest intelligence failures of modern times.” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called it “stunning.” “Today’s classified briefing on Russia’s cyberattack left me deeply alarmed, in fact downright scared. Americans deserve to know what’s going on,” he tweeted. Blumenthal also recognized the severity of the coronavirus early. He tweeted on February 25: “This morning’s classified coronavirus briefing should have been made fully open to the American people — they would be as appalled & astonished as I am by the inadequacy of preparedness & prevention.”
And yet, there are signs that the country is reorienting itself away from Trump and modern-day Republicanism.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, previously a staunch Trump supporter, has released an advertisement urging people to wear masks and admitting he was wrong not to wear one at the White House. It seems likely he is eyeing a future presidential run, and is calculating that it is wise these days to distance himself from Trump’s anti-mask politics.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has refused to advance a coronavirus relief bill since the House passed one last May — seven months ago — is now trying to make a deal that includes direct payments to Americans hurt by the pandemic. He explained to Republicans today that Republican senate candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are running against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, are “getting hammered” because the people want the bill and the Senate is holding it up.
Finally, Bloomberg Tuesday night ran a story by journalist Craig Stirling highlighting the work of economists David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King’s College London, who examined the concept of “supply-side economics,” or the “trickle-down theory.” This is the economic theory popularized in the 1980s saying it’s best for the economy not to support wages at the bottom of the economy — the demand side — but rather to free up capital at the top — the supply side — because wealthy entrepreneurs will create new jobs and the resulting economic growth will help everyone. This idea has been behind the Republicans’ forty-year commitment to tax cuts for the wealthy.
In their study of 18 countries over 50 years, Hope and Limberg concluded that this theory was wrong. Tax cuts do not, they prove, trickle down. They do little to promote growth or create jobs. Instead, they mostly just help the people who get the tax cuts.
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your subscription here.