Relive a year of death, as chaos reigned in the White House
One of the most striking things about “Nightmare Scenario,” a new book about the Trump administration’s chaotic response to Covid-19, is how the narrative seems to work on two tracks. One follows the chaotic history of the White House and government agencies, with staff members running around ostensibly trying to deal with a deadly pandemic while also trying to please President Trump; the other follows the inexorable advance of the new coronavirus itself, as it weaves its way through the American population.
The authors, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, work for the Washington Post – Abutaleb is a reporter covering health policy, and Paletta is the newspaper’s chief economic editor. “’Nightmare Scenario’ aims to provide the first full account of what really happened within the Trump administration between January 2020 and January 2021,” they say in an opening note, offering a guide to their entire intentions. by managing expectations. It is a book that was written with speed and diligence. Whether you like it depends on how drawn you feel to the writers’ promise to delve into “the decisions, meetings, and moments that shaped one of the worst years in US history” and ” to document everything ”.
They usually keep that promise, recounting in detail a year so full of upheaval that revisiting it now can feel like stepping into a feverish dream. I had sort of forgotten that Trump had visited India in late February 2020, groping with a spinning wheel in Mahatma Gandhi’s house; or that he twisted a speech prepared by the Oval Office two weeks later, saying the exact opposite of what he was supposed to say and causing the markets to fall.
But most of that is irrelevant – or should be, although incidents like these have accounted for much of the “news” generated by a president who provided a constant stream of non-presidential behavior. In February, when Trump learned that a number of Americans were trapped on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, he pitched the idea of quarantining infected passengers at Guantánamo Bay, where terrorist suspects were being held indefinitely. Abutaleb and Paletta say Trump was not so much concerned with protecting Americans as he was with keeping the official infection count low: “If they were in Gitmo, the reasoning was fine, they wouldn’t matter.
This proved to be a recurring theme for the administration, which continued to see the pandemic more as a matter of public relations than of public health. Instead of agonizing over the reality that propelled the number of cases and death rates, Trump was preoccupied with the messages, pushing everyone around him to engage in what the authors call “happy conversations.” . There may have been long-standing systemic issues that preceded Trump (a shrinking domestic manufacturing base led to shortages of key supplies, for example), but Abutaleb and Paletta suggest they were significantly compounded by a president who failed to understand that the people he had sworn to serve either died in his custody or ultimately didn’t care.
Trump’s disposition spilled over to the people who worked for him. By the time the pandemic arrived, his administration was left mostly with “a mix of family members, in their twenties, hangers, fourth ropes, former lobbyists, sycophants,” the authors write. . It was an ecosystem that selected for a certain type of temperament. Abutaleb and Paletta interviewed over 180 people, although the number of conflicting stories they heard made them realize that some of those people were lying (or, as they diplomatically put it, “weren’t entirely open with us ”, having learned to survive in“ a White House environment where deception was the norm ”).
There are scoops in this book, but for the most part, they look more like teaspoons of weak tea than substantive revelations. Dr Anthony Fauci was loved by the public so much that some of his medical colleagues started to resent him. A plan to send a free mask to every American household was scuttled after some senior officials likened the mask to a jockstrap or training bra, saying it looked “like it had a pair of underwear on the face “. Trump was apparently so enraged with former national security adviser John Bolton for writing a revealing book he said at one point: “I hope Covid takes John out.”
It’s a line that sounds like a (bad) joke, but Abutaleb and Paletta describe it as an example of Trump going “darkly serious.” This characterization seems like an awkward stretch, and this book as a whole lacks the narrative verve of recent books by Michael Lewis or Lawrence Wright on the pandemic. Some scenes in “Nightmare Scenario” are stretched to dramatic exhaustion. Recounting how Trump slowly walked to the helicopter that would take him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after he himself was sickened by the virus in October, the authors painstakingly detail his arduous journey, asking, “Did could the whole year have passed in front of his mind during these 51 steps?
Who knows? (The authors say Trump canceled a long-scheduled interview at the last minute.) But whatever President Trump thought, his illness was not the wake-up call infectious disease experts were hoping for. After receiving life-saving experimental treatments that were not yet available to the public, Trump did not become more sympathetic to the suffering caused by the virus; instead, he doubled down on his denials by essentially telling his supporters that Covid, whose death toll would hit more than 229,000 Americans by the end of the month, was no big deal.
The “Nightmare Scenario” may relate explicitly to Covid-19, but the authors also document another disease, endemic to the country – a chronic disease that flares up from time to time, sometimes with fatal results. Rather, a crisis that could have united a fractured nation has been militarized in such a way as to exacerbate existing divisions. Yes, against all conventional expectations, we now have vaccines sooner than most anyone imagined – and Abutaleb and Paletta write that the Trump administration, with its fixation on silver bullets, can claim it. Deserves that. But over 600,000 US deaths are a stark reminder that a vaccine only works if you’re alive to take it.