NEW YORK — We’re now at the stage of the COVID-19 pandemic where President Donald Trump and his allies are trying to suppress information about the coronavirus’ spread — because, of course, they are.
True to form, however, they’re far behind the curve. From a political point of view (which is all they care about), their disinformation efforts are too little, too late.
Where we are: In just a few days, millions of Americans are going to see a drastic fall in their incomes, as enhanced unemployment benefits expire. This calls for urgent action, but avoiding economic calamity was always going to be hard because Republicans, in general, balked at providing the aid workers idled by the pandemic need.
But now it turns out there’s another obstacle to action: An intra-GOP dispute about funding for testing and tracing of infected individuals. Even Senate Republicans support increased testing, which is desperately needed given our current situation: Surging cases have created a testing backlog, and test results are taking so long to come back they’re effectively useless.
But Trump officials are opposed to any new money for testing. They’re barely even trying to offer excuses for their opposition, since Trump himself explained the strategy a month ago during his Tulsa rally: When you expand testing, he declared, “you’re going to find more cases, so I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”
In other words, what you don’t know can’t hurt Trump.
Nobody should be surprised that the Trump team is trying to suppress bad news about the pandemic. This was completely predictable given the Law of Obama Projection: Every right-wing conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama was an indication of what Republicans wanted to do themselves, and would do once they had the power.
Remember, for example, wild claims about an imminent military takeover of Texas, lent credence by senior Republicans? Now we have unidentified Department of Homeland Security agents in unmarked vehicles seizing people off the streets of Portland, Ore. Remember claims that the government was secretly constructing concentration camps? Thousands of migrants are now immured in detention centers, often under horrifying conditions.
And the current war on COVID-19 testing was prefigured by constant claims that the Obama administration was suppressing bad economic news. “Inflation truthers” insisted the feds were hiding the runaway inflation right-wingers predicted, but never arrived. Unemployment truthers — including, notably, one Donald Trump — declared official job numbers showing a steadily improving economy were fake and unemployment was actually much higher than reported.
It was inevitable, then, that the Trumpists would do what they falsely accused Obama of doing, and try to hide bad pandemic numbers. Efforts to hold down testing are only part of the story.
The Trump administration recently ordered hospitals to stop reporting COVID-19 data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sending it to a private contractor instead. As a result, hospitalization data, a key pandemic indicator, disappeared from the CDC website before being reinstated after a widespread outcry.
And some Republican-controlled states, notably Georgia, have for months been massaging coronavirus data, presenting it in misleading ways that understate the problem.
The puzzle is why the latest attack on testing came so late. Pro tip: If you’re trying to conceal bad epidemiological news, you should start the cover-up before everyone realizes the pandemic is spiraling out of control.
A fascinating Times post-mortem on Trump’s failed coronavirus response helps us understand what happened. And I do mean mortem: Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a rate eight times that in Canada, 10 times that in Europe.
The Times account makes it clear that the Trump team never seriously considered trying to deal with the pandemic’s reality. It also makes it clear, however, that officials convinced themselves in April that they were getting away with this abdication of responsibility, that the coronavirus was going away.
And by the time they realized the virus wasn’t playing along with their political games, it was too late to hide the truth.
At this point it’s not even clear what purpose obstructing testing is supposed to serve. The attempt to engineer an economic boom before the election already failed, as reopened states are reversing course. And Trump already squandered all credibility on the coronavirus; even if the numbers on reported cases suddenly started to look much better, who besides his hard-core supporters would believe them?
So this doesn’t look like a political strategy as much as an attempt to soothe the president’s fragile ego. Trump keeps insisting, falsely, that the only reason we’re seeing so many cases is too much testing, so his aides are trying to mollify him by holding testing down.
And if this cripples America’s pandemic response, making a test-trace-isolate strategy impossible, well, actually dealing with the virus was never part of the plan.
Paul Krugman is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.