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If This Pandemic Is a War, Trump Is a War Criminal

The president’s incompetence and malice are leading to countless deaths. He must be brought to justice.

By Jeet HeerTwitter

May 6, 2020

President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony on S.1790, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2020, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., on December 20, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)

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On Tuesday, Donald Trump was asked by a reporter to comment on new projections showing even more deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic than previously were expected. “Those projections are without mitigation,” Trump responded. “We’re doing a lot of mitigation.” He added, “The people of our country should think of themselves as warriors. Our country has to open.”

On their own terms, these comments are incoherent and self-refuting. The main mitigation the United States is doing is social distancing, which has been effective in slowing down the spread of the disease but not stopping it. In fact, outside of New York and surrounding states, Covid-19 is still spreading rapidly.

As The New York Times reports, “The country is still in the firm grip of a pandemic with little hope of release. For every indication of improvement in controlling the virus, new outbreaks have emerged elsewhere, leaving the nation stuck in a steady, unrelenting march of deaths and infections.” The pace of that spread will only increase with the opening up of the economy Trump advocates.

Trump’s comment that Americans “should think of themselves as warriors” becomes more ominous when coupled with his frank acknowledgment that the death count from the pandemic will rise. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump admitted in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday.

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Of course, wartime metaphors are common in this crisis, used by many leaders, including the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Usually wartime is evoked to stiffen resolve and strengthen a shared sense of purpose. With Trump, we see the darker side of the wartime metaphor, its use to justify the sacrifice of lives for some common mission, whether good or bad.

If Trump is, as he calls himself, “a wartime president,” then his leadership deserves to be judged by the standards we expect from military men. Sacrificial death is justified in war, but only if it serves a purpose.

As a wartime leader, Trump is close to being a Gen. William Westmoreland, an incompetent commander in an unjust war. Of course, defeating the pandemic is itself justified. But what makes Trump’s conduct horrific is that he’s calling on sacrifices for other purposes, including boosting the economy and ensuring his own reelection.

The persistent bungling of the Trump administration has made the pandemic death count much higher than it should be. A New York Times report shows that the persistent and ongoing shortage of medical supplies was exacerbated by the fact that the supply-chain task force was run by “a team of roughly a dozen young volunteers, recruited by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and overseen by a former assistant to Mr. Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump.”

The volunteers who worked in this task force had in common not just youth but also inexperience. They had little background in procurement and were told to prioritize suggestions from political allies, including big donors and right-wing media stars. A hospital favored by Fox host Jeanine Pirro received 100,000 masks after she strenuously lobbied on its behalf.

As the newspaper reports, “At least one tip the volunteers forwarded turned into an expensive debacle. In late March, according to emails obtained by the Times, two of the volunteers passed along procurement forms submitted by Yaron Oren-Pines, a Silicon Valley engineer who said he could provide more than 1,000 ventilators.” Based on the recommendations of Kushner’s task force, Oren-Pines was given a $69 million contract by New York state. He failed to deliver on the promised ventilators.

Kushner’s task force is run on the same principles that guided the operation of the Green Zone in Baghdad during the George W. Bush administration. Notoriously, the Bush White House gave key positions in the Green Zone to young Republican Party loyalists who had all the right connections—but no experience or expertise in administration.

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The botched pandemic response resembles America’s failed wars in Vietnam and Iraq not just in ineptitude but also in terms of injustice. As with those wars, there is no real shared sacrifice. Rather, the American elite gets to sit out the struggle, as Trump famously did with his draft deferments in Vietnam. It’s left to working-class Americans, often people of color, to endure the brunt of the pain.

Writing in The New York Times, subway conductor and author Sujatha Gidla took stock of the enormous loss of life among public transit workers in New York. Their mortality rate exceeds that of first responders. Gidla writes, “The conditions created by the pandemic drive home the fact that we essential workers—workers in general—are the ones who keep the social order from sinking into chaos. Yet we are treated with the utmost disrespect, as though we’re expendable.” She quotes a colleague’s bitter comments: “We are not essential. We are sacrificial.”

Gidla and her fellow MTA workers are the “warriors” Trump is calling on to make sacrifices. This conscript army includes all Americans—but with certain groups facing a far greater risk of death than the general population. Those most in danger include doctors, nurses, delivery people, grocery store clerks, meat packers, nursing home residents, and prisoners. None of these conscripted warriors will receive VA health care or the access to education and other benefits provided by the GI Bill. Indeed, they could lose wages and benefits, as some doctors and nurses already have because for-profit health care providers are financially strapped by the decline in elective surgeries.

These endangered Americans are being sacrificed not for the sake of public health but for the goal of reopening the economy, with the hope of boosting Trump’s electability. If the current crisis is the moral equivalent of war, then Trump is the moral equivalent of a war criminal. His political defeat in November is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but full justice will have to include corruption investigations—and prosecutions where warranted—after he leaves office.

Jeet HeerTwitterJeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).


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