There’s a common motivation in the White House’s attempt to suppress John Bolton’s book and its state of denial over alarming new trends in the coronavirus pandemic: President Donald Trump doesn’t want Americans to see information that could harm him or the narrative he has constructed.
The former national security adviser’s behind-the-scenes account is expected to portray Trump, who was impeached over an apparent abuse of power in Ukraine and clashed with Bolton over a number of foreign policy issues, in an extremely poor light.
And increasing signs that the pandemic is becoming more virulent in states that heeded the President’s calls to open the economy – like Florida, Arizona, South Carolina and Texas – contradict his claim that the US has prevailed and it’s safe to go back to normal.
“They just don’t want to deal with the reality of it. They’re in denial,” an official familiar with the work of the White House’s coronavirus task force told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Both dramas have the potential to further dent the President’s reelection campaign, as polls show him behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Bolton is likely to undercut Trump’s chosen image as a strong, dominant global leader and could unleash more Ukraine-style controversies over his behavior in office. A surge in coronavirus cases is meanwhile tarnishing the President’s narrative of the “Great American Comeback” and the economic openings that may be key to his hopes of a second term.
Escalating an aggressive effort to halt publication of “The Room Where it Happened,” the administration on Tuesday sued Bolton for breach of contract in an unorthodox legal move, opening what could be an extended legal battle. Trump has claimed falsely that all of his conversations with the former national security adviser are classified. Bolton’s lawyers contend that he has done all that is required in submitting the work to the National Security Council for a review and that the White House is looking for an excuse to stop publication.
The White House claims that Bolton, who has been handling American secrets for most of his adult life as a senior national security official, has written a book “rife with classified” material seem highly dubious. That has led to speculation in Washington that there will be highly damaging information about Trump in the book, which could further harm his image ahead of the election.
The book has already shipped to warehouses ahead of its scheduled release next week, and Bolton has taped an interview with ABC scheduled to air Sunday. His publisher, Simon & Schuster, said in a statement Tuesday that the lawsuit “is nothing more than the latest in a long running series of efforts by the Administration to quash publication of a book it deems unflattering to the President.”
Pence leads disinformation effort
The effort to stop Americans from reading the Bolton book comes as the administration embarks on an aggressive effort to convince the country that the coronavirus pandemic — the one Trump said would never be a problem and has now killed nearly 117,000 Americans – is no longer a concern.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is the head of the White House coronavirus task force, is leading the disinformation effort, just days before Trump is due to appear at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – another state that is setting its own new records in new reported cases. The event looks an ideal incubator for more infections and local health officials have urged Trump to cancel it.
“What he’s doing in Tulsa is criminal endangerment,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at George Washington University, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday.
“He’s intentionally exposing people to the risk of acquiring a deadly virus just for a photo op,” Reiner said.
Elsewhere, both Texas and Arizona on Tuesday announced one-day record highs in new coronavirus infections.
There is some good news to celebrate. States that have been brutally hit by the virus, like New York, New Jersey and the metropolitan area around Washington, DC, have seen their curves decline and are slowly beginning to open up. But the wider spread of the disease is alarming health experts who are also warning that the situation could get worse everywhere in the fall.
But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published a day after he untruthfully said that Oklahoma had flattened its curve, Pence accused the media of “sounding the alarm bells over a second wave.”
“Such panic is overblown,” Pence wrote.
“Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” Pence added.
His new offensive came a day after Trump made the illogical statement that if the US stopped testing, there would be no more coronavirus cases. But the grim potential for escalation was underlined when one key model used in the past by the White House predicted that 201,000 Americans would be dead from the virus by October 1, largely due to increased mobility of citizens as states open and fatigue with social distancing measures.
‘The virus is still with us’
While it is true that the US is now conducting more tests than it was – not all of the increases in new cases can be attributed to that greater volume. The country has now conducted nearly 25 million tests, a number that is less impressive than it seems given that the pandemic in the US is in its fourth month and that tests are being conducted at a level that epidemiologists say is far too low to establish the true penetration of the virus.
The administration has failed to put in place the kind of intricate contact tracing and isolation program that some other nations have used to control the virus. According to a CNN analysis based on data from Johns Hopkins University, Covid-19 cases are rising in 18 states, are steady in 10 and are falling in 22. The worrying sign, however, is that cases are on the up in states across the South which were not as severely affected by the pandemic previously. In that sense, Pence’s argument that media is hyping a “second wave” is immaterial – the new infections merely seem to be an extension of the first wave.
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“The reality is that the virus is with us. The reality is that the first wave only hit a small number of places – now it’s coming to every other place. It’s coming to a county or a city or a state near you,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, said in a STAT News conversation on Tuesday.
A senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, meanwhile, said that Pence’s claims that only a few areas in the US were suffering from increasing cases was not accurate.
“You can cherry-pick a handful of counties and use that as way to say things are not as bad as they look. But that’s not the reality,” the official told CNN’s Nick Valencia.
“What our data is telling us is that there is an increase in cases in states across the country. Deaths are continuing to go down, which is good. Cases are going up,” the official said.
As it is denying the still serious nature of the pandemic, the White House is also ostentatiously flouting government advice – and scientific evidence that wearing a face mask can curb the spread of the virus to manageable levels.
Pence spent much of Tuesday in Iowa, a state where cases have been falling, and interacted with many people who, like him were not wearing a mask. Trump has previously said that he wouldn’t give the media the satisfaction of seeing him covering up on camera.
As the President on Tuesday signed an executive order on police reform, senior officials and members of Congress stood close together and did not wear masks in the Rose Garden of the White House.
“Well, they violated almost every rule you could. I saw that presser,” Zeke Emanuel, health policy adviser under President Barack Obama, told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“There were crowds. They were there together for a long time and … they were very close together, patting each other on the back, often shaking hands. No masks and speaking into each other’s faces,” added Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
While Trump is ignoring mask guidelines, some of his political allies are not. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday pleaded with fellow Texans to cover their faces, wash their hands and observe social distancing.
“We just want to double down in reminding everybody that these things that we learned over March and April in May, they still have to be practiced, because Covid-19 hasn’t suddenly magically left the state of Texas,” he said.