“I always wanted to play it down.”

That is what President Trump told Bob Woodward in March during the early weeks following the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. At the time Trump made that statement, during one of 18 recorded conversations for an upcoming book by the famous political reporter, there were around 4,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and less than 100 people had died.

Six months later, as of Monday, we were at 6.5 million cases and 194,000 deaths, even as Trump has continued to pat himself on the back with self-congratulatory praise for his performance. In reality his performance has been utterly abysmal, and with his repeated bald-face lies about the severity of the virus, he owns the deaths of thousands and thousands of Americans whose demise could have been prevented if his administration had taken a much more aggressive stance and approach from the beginning.

Previous reporting has indicated that Trump was being far from honest about the coronavirus and the threat it posed from the outset, and it has long been clear that the man will lie about anything if it serves his own interests. But that doesn’t make it any less jarring to hear him on tape admit to deliberately lying about what was about to become the biggest public health crisis in a century, with little to no regard for the consequences of such an approach.

It is all laid out for us to hear. No cries of “fake news” or scapegoating can mask it. And the only excuse Trump could offer and still offers for not leveling with Americans about what we truly were facing is that he “didn’t want to create panic.”

How mind-numbingly condescending and intellectually dishonest does one have to be to expect rational people who have followed and paid attention to the Trump presidency to believe that? Exactly how stupid does this guy think we are?

The notion that Trump wants people to avoid panicking is beyond laughable. The man’s brand is trumpeting wild, unfounded claims about his opponents and whatever scapegoat he can find for any particular situation to stoke fear and paranoia among his supporters in an attempt to bolster his political foothold and remain in power.

From the start of his presidential campaign five years ago, he told us Mexican immigrants were murderers and rapists and called for a shutdown of foreign Muslim travel to the U.S. “until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”

He spoke of “American carnage” in his dark inaugural address, and his re-election message — rather than any specific, measures positive policy goals — has been, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

Trump loves to fashion himself as a straight shooter, and those who support him love to say he isn’t a typical politician and tells it like it is. It’s not uncommon for those who adore him most to call him the best president ever, and Trump has more than once inexplicably compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.

But when confronted with what he and his own advisers knew would be the biggest challenge of his presidency, Trump couldn’t bring himself to do what much more principled leaders such as FDR and Winston Churchill did with their people in moments of grave, national peril: be honest with them. But then again, Donald Trump has never been one for “fireside chats.” He much prefers to light the match with his incendiary rhetoric, step back and watch the flames burn and chaos ensue.

So of course, there was no rallying call for the country — citizens and governments — to do everything we could to save as many lives as possible. There was no call to action for Americans to take the COVID-19 threat seriously and solemnly, with the confidence that if we put our minds to it, we would overcome it as we’ve overcome past crises.

Instead, long after he told Woodward he knew the severity of the situation — “This is deadly stuff.” — Trump stood in front of TV cameras and accused those who were raising alarms about the virus of perpetrating a “hoax.” Well after he admitted to Woodward that he understood COVID-19 was far more lethal than the seasonal flu (for which there was already a vaccine), he took to Twitter, and the TV cameras, to compare the two directly and said he didn’t understand the push for things to be shut down, and he continued to publicly pressure governors to “reopen” their states and for schools to reopen their doors when it was clearly unsafe to do so. Long after he acknowledged to Woodward that the virus was airborne, he still refused to wear a mask in public and held no fewer than half a dozen large public rallies, including some indoors where mask-wearing was not required and people were even urged by his cronies to flout precautions. And he has continued to undercut medical professionals and experts on his very one coronavirus task force, favoring a political message over a public health- and science-based one.

This was never about keeping people “calm” for Donald Trump. It has always been about advancing his own interests; that is the story of his life. And in case it wasn’t already clear to those of you who still support him, he does not care about you. Everything with him is purely transactional, and those who have been closest to him and burned by that reality have long been trying to sound the alarm.

Trump’s own niece, Mary L. Trump, gave this searing, but accurate description: "If he can in any way profit from your death, he'll facilitate it, and then he'll ignore the fact that you died."

No amount of deflection or obfuscation from Trump and his sycophants can wash this away. This travesty lies at his feet. He owns it. The buck stops with him. Because of this self-serving, moral coward’s inaction and lies, Americans have died when they shouldn’t have.

In normal times, we all would demand the resignation of any other president. But even though these certainly aren't normal times, that is what we all must do now — even if it produces no immediate result because he doesn’t have the dignity to step down and even though an election is right around the corner. We cannot allow ourselves to become numb to his dereliction.

“I mean, it’s amazing, what we’ve done,” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News hours after the Woodward book story and pieces of audio were published. To him, everything is all hunky-dory with his administration’s COVID-19 response.

More than 194,000 Americans who are dead from the “hoax” couldn’t be reached for comment.

Scott Thompson is editor of The Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com.

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