Today former President Barack Obama gave two virtual graduation speeches. Midday, he spoke to the graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and in the evening, he spoke to the high school graduates of 2020 in an event called Graduate Together.
Both speeches were a striking contrast to the language we have become accustomed to hearing from today’s White House. And while they were directed at this year’s graduates, they mapped out more generally a new direction for America than the one we have taken since 2017.
The former president noted that we are in a frightening moment, when we are coping with a deadly pandemic and a terrible recession. But he also heralded the enormous possibilities of a time when all the cards have been thrown up into the air, waiting to be gathered up into new patterns.
Obama noted that the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” “Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”
He called for today’s youth to honor “honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”
He rejected the aggressive individualism that has defined America since the Reagan years. “[I]t doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick…. [O]ur society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
He placed America’s strength in community. “No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”
He urged young people to change the world. “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore ‘this is how it’s always been done.'”
“More than ever,” the former president said, “this is your moment—your generation’s world to shape.”
The Secret Group of Scientists and Billionaires Pushing a Manhattan Project for Covid-19
They are working to cull the world’s most promising research on the pandemic, passing on their findings to policy makers and the White House
By April 27, 2020 10:49 am ET
A dozen of America’s top scientists and a collection of billionaires and industry titans say they have the answer to the coronavirus pandemic, and they found a backdoor to deliver their plan to the White House.
The eclectic group is led by a 33-year-old physician-turned-venture capitalist, Tom Cahill, who lives far from the public eye in a one-bedroom rental near Boston’s Fenway Park. He owns just one suit, but he has enough lofty connections to influence government decisions in the war against Covid-19.
These scientists and their backers describe their work as a lockdown-era Manhattan Project, a nod to the World War II group of scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb. This time around, the scientists are marshaling brains and money to distill unorthodox ideas gleaned from around the globe.
They call themselves Scientists to Stop Covid-19, and they include chemical biologists, an immunobiologist, a neurobiologist, a chronobiologist, an oncologist, a gastroenterologist, an epidemiologist and a nuclear scientist. Of the scientists at the center of the project, biologist Michael Rosbash, a 2017 Nobel Prize winner, said, “There’s no question that I’m the least qualified.”
This group, whose work hasn’t been previously reported, has acted as the go-between for pharmaceutical companies looking for a reputable link to Trump administration decision makers. They are working remotely as an ad hoc review board for the flood of research on the coronavirus, weeding out flawed studies before they reach policy makers.
The group has compiled a confidential 17-page report that calls for a number of unorthodox methods against the virus. One big idea is treating patients with powerful drugs previously used against Ebola, with far heftier dosages than have been tried in the past.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have already implemented specific recommendations, such as slashing manufacturing regulations and requirements for specific coronavirus drugs.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told people this month that he agreed with most of the recommendations in the report, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter. The report was delivered to cabinet members and Vice President Mike Pence, head of the administration’s coronavirus task force.
Dr. Cahill’s primary asset is a young lifetime of connections through his investment firm. They include such billionaires as Peter Thiel, Jim Pallotta and Michael Milken—financiers who afforded him the legitimacy to reach officials in the middle of the crisis. Dr. Cahill and his group have frequently advised Nick Ayers, Mr. Pence’s longtime aide, and agency heads through phone calls over the past month.
No one involved with the group stands to gain financially. They say they are motivated by the chance to add their own connections and levelheaded science to a coronavirus battle effort that has, on both state and federal levels, been strained.
“We may fail,” said Stuart Schreiber, a Harvard University chemist and a member of the group. “But if it succeeds, it could change the world.”
Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics and the co-chairman of Bain Capital—as well as one of Dr. Cahill’s investors—helped copy edit drafts of their report, and he passed a version to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive David Solomon. Mr. Solomon got it to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The group’s members say they are aware that many of their ideas may not be implemented, and could be ignored altogether by the Trump administration.
This account is based on interviews with scientists, businesspeople, government officials, as well as a review of related documents.
Only two years ago, Dr. Cahill was studying for his M.D. and PhD. at Duke University, conducting research on rare genetic diseases and wearing $20Costco slacks. He assumed he would continue the work after graduation.
Instead, he reconnected with a friend who introduced him to a job at his father’s company, the blue-chip investment firm the Raptor Group.
Dr. Cahill got hooked on investing, particularly in life sciences. He reasoned he could make a bigger impact by identifying promising scientists and helping them troubleshoot problems—both scientific and financial—than doing research himself.
After a stint at Raptor, he formed his own fund, Newpath Partners, with $125 million from a small group of wealthy investors, including Silicon Valley stalwart Mr. Thiel and private-equity founders like Mr. Pagliuca. They were attracted to his blunt approach, as well as his interest in tackling intractable problems.
In early March, as the Covid-19 death toll mounted, Dr. Cahill was intrigued and a little depressed with the state of research on the virus. “Science and medicine were the furthest things removed from everything happening,” he said.
His investors peppered him with questions about the virus, and he organized a conference call to share some against-the-grain ideas on how to accelerate drug development and the like. He expected about 20 people.
When Dr. Cahill tried to dial in the meeting, he was rejected because the call had reached capacity. Then his cellphone buzzed from a New York number. It was National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver. He, too, wanted the meeting’s access code. Dr. Cahill later gave him a personal briefing.
Newpath’s deep-pocketed investor base had spread word of the call, and hundreds of people were on the line, most of whom he had never met, including Mr. Milken.
When he finally got on the call, Dr. Cahill took a deep breath and said he had been working with friends to whittle down potential Covid-19 treatments to the most promising. He said he largely dropped his investing work to focus on a hunt for a cure.
After an hour, he hung up and found his email inbox full of ideas and offers to help, including from Mr. Milken’s team. “For the 50 years I’ve been involved in medical research I have never seen collaboration as we have today,” Mr. Milken said.
Dr. Cahill received a handful of notes from advisers to the vice president. They also had been on the call.
The scientist-investor had gained a platform. All he needed was a plan.
One of Dr. Cahill’s first calls was to Mr. Schreiber, a founder of several private companies.
Mr. Schreiber looped in a longtime friend, Edward Scolnick, former head of research and development at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., where he helped develop 28 new drugs and vaccines. Dr. Scolnick was blunt: A vaccine would take at least 18 months to hit the market under normal circumstances, he told Mr. Schreiber, “if you’re damn lucky.”
Mr. Schreiber responded, “What about six months?”
The team drew up a list of roughly two dozen companies that could benefit from their recommendations and pledged to sell any shares in them immediately. One early member said he couldn’t and was kicked out.
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Much of the early work involved divvying up hundreds of scientific papers on the crisis from around the world. They separated promising ideas from dubious ones. Each member blazed through as many as 20 papers a day, around 10 times the pace they would in their day jobs. They gathered to debate via videoconference, text messages—“like a bunch of teenagers,” Mr. Rosbash said—and phone calls.
Personal hygiene went by the wayside. Michael Lin, a Stanford University neurobiologist, began disabling the camera on his phone to protect his vanity. “A couple of days, I’ve had seven or eight Zoom meetings, which will itself I’m sure cause some kind of disease,” joked David Liu, a Harvard University chemical biologist.
Debates haven’t always been purely science. The group discussed, for instance, whether to suggest that public-health authorities rename the virus “SARS-2,” after the 2003 China animal virus. To them, the name sounded scarier and might get more people to wear face masks. They dropped it.
The team pledged to try to block out politics—not an easy task in the noise and fury of a presidential election year.
Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by the president, was dismissed after the group’s resident expert, Ben Cravatt of Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., determined it was a long shot at best. The drug received only a passing mention in the group’s final report.
The group also disparaged the idea of using antibody testing to allow people back to work if their results showed they had recovered from the virus. Mr. Cravatt, a chemical biologist, declared it “the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” He said that prior exposure may not prevent people from giving the virus to others, and that overemphasizing antibody testing might tempt some people to intentionally infect themselves to later obtain a clean bill of health.
The group’s initial three phases of recommendations, contained in its report, center on leveraging the scale of the federal government. For instance, buy medicines not yet proven effective as a way to encourage manufacturers to ramp up production without worrying about losing money if the drugs fail. Another is to slash the time required for a clinical review of new drugs to a week from nine months or a year.
The group next needed to get their recommendations to the right people in the Trump administration. For that, Dr. Cahill tapped another well-placed billionaire.
Brian Sheth, co-founder of private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners, and a Democrat, had been watching the effort gather steam from his home in Austin, Texas. He was an early investor in Dr. Cahill’s fund and had been on the first call. His expertise was technology, though, not immunology.
He had become friendly with Thomas Hicks Jr., the Dallas businessman and co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Sheth introduced Mr. Hicks to Dr. Cahill’s group.
The connection cinched ties between a group of mostly liberal scientists from left-leaning institutions with a Republican stalwart who hunts birds with Donald Trump Jr.
In his first chat with the group, Mr. Hicks said, “I’m not a scientist. Make it clear enough for me, and then tell me where the red tape is.”
A major concern of the scientists was the FDA. The scientists had in their research identified monoclonal antibody drugs that latch onto virus cells as the most promising treatment. But to make the medicine in sufficient quantities, one drugmaker, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., would have to shift some of its existing manufacturing to Ireland. FDA rules required a monthslong wait for approval.
Mr. Scolnick, who had tussled with bureaucracy during the AIDS epidemic, tried reaching the FDA. The call ended poorly after the bureaucrats told the group they already had the pandemic under control. In a group call afterward, one of the scientists said, of the FDA: “They’re the problem here.”
Dr. Cahill got in touch with Mr. Ayers. Once the group briefed the vice president’s aide on the bottleneck, Mr. Ayers said he knew who to call. That evening, March 27, Regeneron received a call from the FDA. They had permission, starting immediately, to shift production to Dublin.
“That was proof positive that what we were doing was starting to work,” Mr. Rosbash said.
The group also made inroads with the VA, the largest health care system in the U.S. The scientists pushed the division’s medical staff to allow veterans with Covid-19 to join existing studies in such areas as prostate cancer, to see if already-approved drugs might be effective against the virus. They spoke to the VA’s chief medical officer and secretary about the proposal and learned the initiative was being fast-tracked.
Mr. Pagliuca spoke to Charles Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, on the phone about the report. The governor, Mr. Pagliuca said, planned to adopt elements of the plan.
With much of their scientific proposals under advisement, or already in the process, the group has an eye on the post-Covid-19 world. Mr. Pagliuca pushed the scientists to add a fourth phase to the plan—reopening America.
The ideas include development of a saliva test, and scheduling tests at the end of the workday so results are available by morning. They also have suggested a nationwide smartphone app that requires residents to confirm each day that they don’t have any of 14 symptoms of a cold or fever.
Group members have continued their discussions with administration officials in recent days, hoping their confidential plan turns to action.
“We need the entire nation—government, business and science—to unite to defeat this,” Mr. Pagliuca said.
Corrections & Amplifications An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote, “I’m sure cause some kind of disease,” to Michael Lin. It was said by David Liu. (April 27, 2020)
As Faust describes it, the issue boils down to this: The annual flu mortality figures published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are estimates produced by plugging laboratory-confirmed deaths into a mathematical model that attempts to correct for undercounting. Covid-19 death figures represent a literal count of people who have either tested positive for the virus or whose diagnosis was based on meeting certain clinical and epidemiological criteria.AD
Such a comparison is of the apples to oranges variety, Faust writes, as the former are “inflated statistical estimates” and the latter are “actual numbers.”
To get a more accurate comparison, one must start with the number of directly confirmed flu deaths, which the CDC tracks on an annual basis. In the past seven flu seasons, going back to 2013, that tally fluctuated between 3,448 and 15,620 deaths.
Now, let’s add a bar for this season’s covid-19 deaths, which as of this writing stands at 63,259, and which will be even higher by the time you read this. Note the drastic change in the y-axis to accommodate the scale of covid-19 mortality.
This year’s data are necessarily incomplete, as 22 weeks remain in the flu season. There are not likely to be many more flu deaths, as we are well past the worst of the season. But covid-19 mortality has plateaued at around 2,000 deaths per day. Where it will head next is anyone’s guess.AD
Using an apples-to-apples comparison, we can say that the coronavirus and the disease it causes, covid-19, have already killed eight times as many people as the flu. By the time we get data for the entire season, the difference appears likely to be at least tenfold, or a full order of magnitude.
The coronavirus, Faust writes, “is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse.”
One of the most challenging things about this pandemic is making sense of the profound uncertainty surrounding the many quantities that might appear, at first glance, to be rock solid. On the surface, comparing flu and coronavirus deaths seems like a simple proposition: dig up the official numbers of both and see which is greater.How two doctors became central to the push to lift coronavirus stay-at-home orders: Recommended Watch!
But that effort gets complicated as soon as you realize that flu mortality is not reported as a tally but as an estimated range, which is far different from the individual counts, based on testing and diagnoses, used for covid-19. And because we can’t test and diagnose everyone, those covid-19 deaths are probably undercounted as well. Soon, what once appeared to be a simple mathematical exercise turns into a mess of algorithms, estimates and uncertainty.ADhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
People encountering that uncertainty for the first time, as many of us are during this pandemic, are likely to react in one of two ways. Some cherry-pick a single number that comports with their biases, creating an artificial certainty to score political points or avoid upsetting their preconceptions. That’s what the politicians and talking heads using faulty flu data to downplay the outbreak are doing. Others throw their hands up and declare the truth to be unknowable, indulging in the cynicism that believes you can “make statistics say whatever you want.”
But rather than try to make sense of this uncertainty ourselves, there’s a third option: turning to the experts who’ve devoted their entire careers to these questions. We can listen to the epidemiologists and physicians, people like Faust and his colleagues, who are trained to draw the best possible conclusions out of uncertain data, understanding that those conclusions may have to be updated as new information comes in.
And while the experts might not all agree on some points, something like a critical consensus emerges if we listen to enough of them. Then, that consensus can be used to inform policy that helps save lives and protect the economy.AD
Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians. She previously taught at MIT and the University of Massachusetts. Richardson has authored six books.
If you google the history of Mother’s Day, the internet will tell you that Mother’s Day began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother. But “Mothers’ Day”—with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural—actually started in the 1870s, when the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced American women that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change modern society.
The Civil War years taught naïve Americans what mass death meant in the modern era. Soldiers who had marched off to war with fantasies of heroism discovered that long-range weapons turned death into tortured anonymity. Men were trampled into blood-soaked mud, piled like cordwood in ditches, or transformed into emaciated corpses after dysentery drained their lives away.
The women who had watched their men march off to war were haunted by its results. They lost fathers, husbands, sons. The men who did come home were scarred in body and mind.
Modern war, it seemed, was not a game.
But out of the war also came a new sense of empowerment. Women had bought bonds, paid taxes, raised money for the war effort, managed farms, harvested fields, worked in war industries, reared children, and nursed soldiers. When the war ended, they had every intention of continuing to participate in national affairs. But the Fourteenth Amendment, which established that African American men were citizens, did not include women. In 1869, women organized the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association to promote women’s right to have a say in American government.
From her home in Boston, Julia Ward Howe was a key figure in the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. She was an enormously talented writer, who had penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the early years of the Civil War, a hymn whose lyrics made it a point to note that Christ was “born of woman.” Howe was drawn to women’s rights because the laws of her time meant that her children belonged to her abusive husband. If she broke free of him, she would lose any right to see her children, a fact he threw at her whenever she threatened to leave him. She was not at first a radical in the mold of reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, believing that women had a human right to equality with men. Rather, she believed strongly that women, as mothers, had a special role to perform in the world.
For Howe, the Civil War had been traumatic, but that it led to emancipation might justify its terrible bloodshed. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 was another story. She remembered:
“I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?”
Howe had a new vision, she said, of “the august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities.” She sat down immediately and wrote an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” Men always had and always would decide questions by resorting to “mutual murder.” But women did not have to accept this state of affairs, she wrote. Mothers could command their sons to stop the madness.
“Arise, women! Howe commanded. Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
Howe had her document translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Swedish, and distributed it as widely as her extensive contacts made possible. She believed that her Women’s Peace Movement would be the next great development in human history, ending war just as the anti-slavery movement had ended human bondage. She called for a “festival which should be observed as mothers’ day, and which should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines” to be held around the world on June 2 of every year, a date that would permit open-air meetings.
Howe organized international peace conferences and American states developed their own Mothers’ Day festivals. But Howe quickly gave up on her project. She realized that there was much to be done before women could come together on such a momentous scale. She turned her attention to women’s clubs “to constitute a working and united womanhood.”
As she worked to unite women, she threw herself into the struggle for women’s suffrage, understanding that in order to create a more just and peaceful society, women must take up their rightful place as equal participants in American politics.
Perhaps Anna Jarvis remembered seeing her mother participate in an original American Mothers’ Day when she decided to honor her own mother in the early twentieth century. And while we celebrate modern Mother’s Day in this momentous year of 2020, it’s worth remembering the original Mothers’ Day, and Julia Ward Howe’s conviction that women must make their voices heard.
In the period between the death of Christ and the day of judgment, when Christians are allowed to live here in visible community with other Christians, we have merely a gracious anticipation of the end time. It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that the visible community is grace. . . . The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer (Life Together in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5, 28-29).
Bonhoeffer knew whereof he spoke. The previous year the Gestapo closed the underground seminary of which he was the director. Colleagues and former students were being held in detention. Bonhoeffer no doubt realized that his own freedom was precarious, as subsequent events proved to be the case. Today his words speak directly to our situation as we forego the “incomparable joy and strength” of “the physical presence of other Christians.” To keep contagion at a minimum we are advised—and in some cases, ordered—to “shelter in place.” Our church buildings are closed, and they will probably remain closed until the danger has passed.
We are in new territory here as citizens of this country, as citizens of the world, and as citizens of the kingdom of God. We have perhaps learned to appreciate the “physical presence of other Christians” as never before. And we are grateful for the technology that allows us to see one another through various media and even engage in worship online. While none of this is the same as fully enfleshed engagement with one another, it nonetheless offers a more robust form of communication than previous ages had available when they faced comparable isolation.
How are we to respond to this situation of physical isolation combined with media connectivity? First of all, I think we should acknowledge the loss. Our loss may be relatively small, especially if we are not among those most vulnerable economically, or if we are not suffering the daily risk faced by healthcare providers or others engaged in essential services. But still our loss is real enough, and it may deepen as the crisis goes on. It is one thing to “fast” from Holy Communion during Lent, but it will seem strange indeed during the Easter season and beyond.
How, then, do we continue to worship during this time of pandemic? And where might we find wellsprings of grace to sustain us during this difficult time? We are, after all, a community of death and resurrection, having been made so by the gift of incorporation into Christ at baptism. We share in that paschal mystery every day and at every moment. God has not abandoned us, and divine grace awaits us at every turn. While this period of sacramental minimalism may awaken us to the joy and grace of the sacraments, it is well to remember that, as the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us” (BCP, 861). God continues to reach out to us, supplying the strength we need to weather our losses. Christ is our companion in joy and sorrow, life and death. Even in physical isolation, we are not alone: Christ is with us along with the whole communion of saints who belong to him.
It remains true, of course, that the Holy Eucharist is “the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP, 13). The link between Eucharistic worship and the Day of Resurrection—the “Lord’s Day”—seems pretty clear from the New Testament itself and characterized the worship of the Church from her earliest centuries. This is a feast that at once looks back to the Last Supper and anticipates the banquet of the age to come. It both “proclaims the Lord’s death” and participates in his resurrection. Hence, a candidate for Holy Baptism must promise fidelity to the Eucharistic community—to the “breaking of the bread”–in words describing the first generation of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:42).
When, however, for reasons of public health we cannot gather as a community for the Eucharist, we have another liturgy still available to us: the Daily Office. The Book of Common Prayer describes the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, together with the Holy Eucharist, as the “regular services appointed for public worship in this Church” (BCP, 13). We can thank Thomas Cranmer, architect of the first Book of Common Prayer, for the inclusion of Morning and Evening Prayer in our prayer book. The origins of the Office go back to the round of Jewish piety that punctuated the day. These services evolved over the Christian centuries, first in the cathedral cities, until quite an elaborate seven-fold office was prayed, often with beautiful chant, in medieval monasteries. Cranmer culled material from these monastic offices, simplified them, and restored them to use by lay people and parishes. They were now in English rather than in Latin. Cranmer never intended the offices to replace the Eucharist on Sundays. Rather, they were to be prayed every day in the parish church: these are daily offices. On Sundays, the offices would be said and the Holy Communion celebrated.
The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are thus a treasured part of our Anglican heritage. But these treasures are to be used rather than placed on a shelf for admiration. They are the living prayer of the Church each day. Even if we say the office privately, we do not pray alone. We are praying with the Church, engaging in a common round of consecutive readings from Scripture, recitation of the psalms, canticles and prayers. The office supports our prayer when we feel uninspired; we just have to do it. It subtly but steadily deepens our connection to the particular mystery of Christ commemorated in any given liturgical season.
In this time of Eucharistic deprivation, a number of parishes are streaming the Daily Office on Sunday, often using the Eucharistic lectionary for the readings, since the Office is serving as the main—or only—service for the day. This is all to the good, and in this way some Episcopalians who are unfamiliar with the office may begin to take it up, as intended, for daily use. People who are not living in total isolation but in Christian households might well begin praying the office together not just on Sundays, but every day. The office is designed for daily use, and it is only over the long haul that one really experiences its benefits. The Scripture lessons, in particular, bear fruit not when dipped into occasionally, but when read consecutively, “in course.”
If, as is likely, the need for physical distancing stretches out for months rather than for weeks, the pain of separation from the Eucharistic celebration may become acute. Some parishes and cathedrals are already streaming the Eucharistic liturgy online, and more may do so over time. In what spirit might Christians watch these celebrations in which they cannot participate by receiving the consecrated Bread and Wine? In what spirit should priests and bishops preside at them?
This situation is not entirely novel to Christian experience. As Bonhoeffer observed, Christians are sometimes deprived of the physical presence of the faith community, and thus of the sacramental ministrations they would normally provide, over long stretches: Christians suffering under conditions of persecution or imprisonment, for instance, or those living among non-Christians where no Christian community is at hand. Wars and natural disasters—tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and catastrophic fires—all disrupt community on every level and thwart participation in the sacraments. In the rubrics for the Ministration to the Sick, the prayer book anticipates a circumstance in which someone might be physically unable to receive Holy Communion:
If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness of physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (BCP, 457)
This has come to be called “Communion by desire” or “spiritual Communion.” The assurance the celebrant is charged to offer those too infirm to receive the Sacrament is no empty gesture. It bespeaks a confidence in God’s love for us and in the capacity of divine grace to reach us no matter how constricting our circumstances. Hence, the longing for sacramental Communion, roused by our very deprivation of it, should not be repressed but rather channeled into the earnest seeking of spiritual communion with Jesus. Such a deepening of union with Christ is always available to us, but we lay hold of it intentionally through prayer. In one of his talks, Thomas Merton described the process this way:
In prayer we discover what we already have through the indwelling Spirit of God and our incorporation through baptism into Christ. You start where you are and deepen what you already have and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. All we need is to experience what we already possess (qtd. in Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, 45).
“What we already possess” is communion with Christ. It is variously described in the New Testament as “indwelling” or “abiding”: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). St. Paul declares that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). So communion with Christ is already ours, given through “our incorporation through baptism into Christ.” But it is one thing to know this, and another to experience it. This union can, as in any love relationship, be enhanced and deepened. Hence the practice of prayer, including spiritual Communion.
“The Mass on the World” by French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin witnesses to the depths to which spiritual Communion can plumb. He composed this prose-prayer on the steppes of Asia on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord in 1923 when he found himself without the needed elements to celebrate Mass. He was instead moved to “make the whole earth my altar” at daybreak to offer God “all the sufferings and labours of the world.” As de Chardin moves from “The Offering” to “Communion” and “Prayer,” he lays bare his love for God, for suffering humanity, and for a creation shot through with the presence of Christ (Hymn of the Universe).
It may be that viewing an online celebration of the Holy Eucharist, especially one that is conducted in “real time,” can inspire a similar movement of the spirit: from hearing and interiorly responding to the Liturgy of the Word; through the “offering of our life and labors,” our joys and deprivations, our griefs and losses; to an experienced union with Christ as the Great Thanksgiving is prayed, and the Bread broken. What then? Are the “Gifts of God” still “for the People of God”? Yes, they are! In Anglican tradition, the Eucharist is never celebrated without a congregation, no matter how small; we have no “private Masses.” So any online celebration would have to include, besides the priest, at least a few people, spaced a safe physical distance from one another. Their reception of the Sacrament would be an occasion of grace not only for themselves, but also for all of us. Because we are all members of the one Body of Christ, when one member benefits from the manifold graces of Holy Communion, we all flourish.
There are some voices in the Church who have urged that when celebrating the Eucharist under these conditions, priests should refrain from receiving Holy Communion in sacrificial solidarity with the vast majority of the faithful who are deprived of that privilege. There is, however, another sacrificial reality at work in the Eucharist of greater significance. In his self-offering to the Father, Jesus also offers himself to us: “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. . . Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood” (BCP, 362-63). Would we refuse his invitation? Disobey his clear command? The bread and wine must be consumed: Communion is the climax of the Eucharist. And so the priest, together with whatever congregation is present, share in the sacramental gift of Christ on behalf of us all and for the life of the world. The Eucharist is always for the whole Church; indeed, it is always celebrated on behalf of the whole creation. Priests are not in control of this dynamic of grace. As the ecumenical Lima Document states:
It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. . .. In most churches, this presidency is signified by an ordained minister. The one who presides at the eucharistic celebration in the name of Christ makes clear that the rite is not the assemblies’ own creation or possession; the eucharist is received as a gift from Christ living in his Church. (“Eucharist” In Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, par. 29).
To preside at the Eucharist is, even under ordinary circumstances, a grace received with awed thanksgiving and piercing humility. Few priests are unaware of their personal unworthiness to “go up to the altar of God.” Yet this ministry is exercised confidently on behalf of the priestly people. In the same way, both priest and people receive the Sacrament trusting in the comprehensive mercy of God. Indeed, one of the benefits of receiving Holy Communion is the forgiveness of sins. But the sacraments are not just for the individual recipients of them, however great their personal value may be; they are for the whole world. As the Lima Document goes on to say: “The world, to which renewal is promised, is present in the whole eucharistic celebration” (par. 23).
It is always a privilege to receive Holy Communion. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, there are Christians–incalculable numbers of them, in fact–who cannot share in the communal and sacramental fullness we normally enjoy. Life in this world is riddled with inequities. But the economy of the kingdom of God is of a different order, and the Eucharist participates even now in that heavenly realm. If our situation allows us in the present constrained circumstances to receive the Sacrament, we should do so, more cognizant that ever of the extraordinary gift of Christ. When we are united to Christ in Holy Communion, we are united to one another in the whole communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.
The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta is the Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology in the School of Theology, the University of the South, Sewanee. Her most recent book is Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality (Church Publishing, 2018).
Thanks to Bonhoeffer biographer and theologian Charles Marsh for bring these words to my attention. You can apply them this morning as you see fit.
“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force.”
“Against stupidity we are defenseless; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed, and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one.”
“It seems obvious that stupidity is less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions.”
“The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he speaks on behalf of an empowered group. In conversation with him, one feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans and catchwords that have taken possession of him.”
“The stupid man is under a spell…[And] having become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”
“The Bible’s words that the ‘fear of the Lord God is the beginning of wisdom’ teaches us that a person’s inward liberation from foolishness and decision to live responsibly and intelligently before God is the only real cure to stupidity.”
I kow some of you might not want to read a long article about this. So, I’ve provided a few bullet points of quotations from the article that might jumpstart your interest.
Mr. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the “Deep State” — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives.
The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on Jan. 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks. The president, who was on Air Force One while traveling for appearances in the Midwest, responded that Mr. Azar was being alarmist.
When Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department, convened the White House coronavirus task force on Feb. 21, his agenda was urgent. There were deep cracks in the administration’s strategy for keeping the virus out of the United States. They were going to have to lock down the country to prevent it from spreading. The question was: When?… In Washington, the president was not worried, predicting that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
It was early January, and the call with a Hong Kong epidemiologist left Matthew Pottinger rattled.Mr. Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and a hawk on China, took a blunt warning away from the call with the doctor, a longtime friend: A ferocious, new outbreak that on the surface appeared similar to the SARS epidemic of 2003 had emerged in China. It had spread far more quickly than the government was admitting to, and it wouldn’t be long before it reached other parts of the world.Mr. Pottinger had worked as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic, and was still scarred by his experience…
Now, seventeen years later, his friend had a blunt message: You need to be ready. The virus, he warned, which originated in the city of Wuhan, was being transmitted by people who were showing no symptoms — an insight that American health officials had not yet accepted. Mr. Pottinger declined through a spokesman to comment.It was one of the earliest warnings to the White House, and it echoed the intelligence reports making their way to the National Security Council.
The early alarms sounded by Mr. Pottinger and other China hawks were freighted with ideology — including a push to publicly blame China…they ran into opposition from Mr. Trump’s economic advisers, who worried a tough approach toward China could scuttle a trade deal that was a pillar of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.
Travel restrictions were usually counterproductive to managing biological outbreaks because they prevented doctors and other much-needed medical help from easily getting to the affected areas, the health officials said. And such bans often cause infected people to flee, spreading the disease further.
He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus
An examination reveals the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic but that internal divisions, lack of planning and his faith in his own instincts led to a halting response.
WASHINGTON — “Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad,” a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Carter Mecher, wrote on the night of Jan. 28, in an email to a group of public health experts scattered around the government and universities. “The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”
A week after the first coronavirus case had been identified in the United States, and six long weeks before President Trump finally took aggressive action to confront the danger the nation was facing — a pandemic that is now forecast to take tens of thousands of American lives — Dr. Mecher was urging the upper ranks of the nation’s public health bureaucracy to wake up and prepare for the possibility of far more drastic action.
His was hardly a lone voice. Throughout January, as Mr. Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government — from top White House advisers to experts deep in the cabinet departments and intelligence agencies — identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action.
The president, though, was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he said, that had come out of nowhere and could not have been foreseen.
Even after Mr. Trump took his first concrete action at the end of January — limiting travel from China — public health often had to compete with economic and political considerations in internal debates, slowing the path toward belated decisions to seek more money from Congress, obtain necessary supplies, address shortfalls in testing and ultimately move to keep much of the nation at home.
Unfolding as it did in the wake of his impeachment by the House and in the midst of his Senate trial, Mr. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the “Deep State” — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives.
Decision-making was also complicated by a long-running dispute inside the administration over how to deal with China. The virus at first took a back seat to a desire not to upset Beijing during trade talks, but later the impulse to score points against Beijing left the world’s two leading powers further divided as they confronted one of the first truly global threats of the 21st century.
The shortcomings of Mr. Trump’s performance have played out with remarkable transparency as part of his daily effort to dominate television screens and the national conversation.
But dozens of interviews with current and former officials and a review of emails and other records revealed many previously unreported details and a fuller picture of the roots and extent of his halting response as the deadly virus spread:
The National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received intelligence reports in early January predicting the spread of the virus to the United States, and within weeks was raising options like keeping Americans home from work and shutting down cities the size of Chicago. Mr. Trump would avoid such steps until March.
Despite Mr. Trump’s denial weeks later, he was told at the time about a Jan. 29 memo produced by his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, laying out in striking detail the potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic: as many as half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.
The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on Jan. 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks. The president, who was on Air Force One while traveling for appearances in the Midwest, responded that Mr. Azar was being alarmist.
Mr. Azar publicly announced in February that the government was establishing a “surveillance” system in five American cities to measure the spread of the virus and enable experts to project the next hot spots. It was delayed for weeks. The slow start of that plan, on top of the well-documented failures to develop the nation’s testing capacity, left administration officials with almost no insight into how rapidly the virus was spreading. “We were flying the plane with no instruments,” one official said.
By the third week in February, the administration’s top public health experts concluded they should recommend to Mr. Trump a new approach that would include warning the American people of the risks and urging steps like social distancing and staying home from work. But the White House focused instead on messaging and crucial additional weeks went by before their views were reluctantly accepted by the president — time when the virus spread largely unimpeded.
When Mr. Trump finally agreed in mid-March to recommend social distancing across the country, effectively bringing much of the economy to a halt, he seemed shellshocked and deflated to some of his closest associates. One described him as “subdued” and “baffled” by how the crisis had played out. An economy that he had wagered his re-election on was suddenly in shambles.
Mr. Trump’s allies and some administration officials say the criticism has been unfair. The Chinese government misled other governments, they say. And they insist that the president was either not getting proper information, or the people around him weren’t conveying the urgency of the threat. In some cases, they argue, the specific officials he was hearing from had been discredited in his eyes, but once the right information got to him through other channels, he made the right calls.
“While the media and Democrats refused to seriously acknowledge this virus in January and February, President Trump took bold action to protect Americans and unleash the full power of the federal government to curb the spread of the virus, expand testing capacities and expedite vaccine development even when we had no true idea the level of transmission or asymptomatic spread,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.
There were key turning points along the way, opportunities for Mr. Trump to get ahead of the virus rather than just chase it. There were internal debates that presented him with stark choices, and moments when he could have chosen to ask deeper questions and learn more. How he handled them may shape his re-election campaign. They will certainly shape his legacy.
The Containment Illusion
By the last week of February, it was clear to the administration’s public health team that schools and businesses in hot spots would have to close. But in the turbulence of the Trump White House, it took three more weeks to persuade the president that failure to act quickly to control the spread of the virus would have dire consequences.
When Dr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department, convened the White House coronavirus task force on Feb. 21, his agenda was urgent. There were deep cracks in the administration’s strategy for keeping the virus out of the United States. They were going to have to lock down the country to prevent it from spreading. The question was: When?
There had already been an alarming spike in new cases around the world and the virus was spreading across the Middle East. It was becoming apparent that the administration had botched the rollout of testing to track the virus at home, and a smaller-scale surveillance program intended to piggyback on a federal flu tracking system had also been stillborn.
In Washington, the president was not worried, predicting that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” His White House had yet to ask Congress for additional funding to prepare for the potential cost of wide-scale infection across the country, and health care providers were growing increasingly nervous about the availability of masks, ventilators and other equipment.
What Mr. Trump decided to do next could dramatically shape the course of the pandemic — and how many people would get sick and die.
With that in mind, the task force had gathered for a tabletop exercise — a real-time version of a full-scale war gaming of a flu pandemic the administration had run the previous year. That earlier exercise, also conducted by Mr. Kadlec and called “Crimson Contagion,” predicted 110 million infections, 7.7 million hospitalizations and 586,000 deaths following a hypothetical outbreak that started in China.
Facing the likelihood of a real pandemic, the group needed to decide when to abandon “containment” — the effort to keep the virus outside the U.S. and to isolate anyone who gets infected — and embrace “mitigation” to thwart the spread of the virus inside the country until a vaccine becomes available.
Among the questions on the agenda, which was reviewed by The New York Times, was when the department’s secretary, Mr. Azar, should recommend that Mr. Trump take textbook mitigation measures “such as school dismissals and cancellations of mass gatherings,” which had been identified as the next appropriate step in a Bush-era pandemic plan.
The exercise was sobering. The group — including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Robert R. Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Mr. Azar, who at that stage was leading the White House Task Force — concluded they would soon need to move toward aggressive social distancing, even at the risk of severe disruption to the nation’s economy and the daily lives of millions of Americans.
If Dr. Kadlec had any doubts, they were erased two days later, when he stumbled upon an email from a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who was among the group of academics, government physicians and infectious diseases doctors who had spent weeks tracking the outbreak in the Red Dawn email chain.
A 20-year-old Chinese woman had infected five relatives with the virus even though she never displayed any symptoms herself. The implication was grave — apparently healthy people could be unknowingly spreading the virus — and supported the need to move quickly to mitigation.
“Is this true?!” Dr. Kadlec wrote back to the researcher. “If so we have a huge whole on our screening and quarantine effort,” including a typo where he meant hole. Her response was blunt: “People are carrying the virus everywhere.”
The following day, Dr. Kadlec and the others decided to present Mr. Trump with a plan titled “Four Steps to Mitigation,” telling the president that they needed to begin preparing Americans for a step rarely taken in United States history.
But over the next several days, a presidential blowup and internal turf fights would sidetrack such a move. The focus would shift to messaging and confident predictions of success rather than publicly calling for a shift to mitigation.
These final days of February, perhaps more than any other moment during his tenure in the White House, illustrated Mr. Trump’s inability or unwillingness to absorb warnings coming at him. He instead reverted to his traditional political playbook in the midst of a public health calamity, squandering vital time as the coronavirus spread silently across the country.
Dr. Kadlec’s group wanted to meet with the president right away, but Mr. Trump was on a trip to India, so they agreed to make the case to him in person as soon as he returned two days later. If they could convince him of the need to shift strategy, they could immediately begin a national education campaign aimed at preparing the public for the new reality.
A memo dated Feb. 14, prepared in coordination with the National Security Council and titled “U.S. Government Response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus,” documented what more drastic measures would look like, including: “significantly limiting public gatherings and cancellation of almost all sporting events, performances, and public and private meetings that cannot be convened by phone. Consider school closures. Widespread ‘stay at home’ directives from public and private organizations with nearly 100% telework for some.”
The memo did not advocate an immediate national shutdown, but said the targeted use of “quarantine and isolation measures” could be used to slow the spread in places where “sustained human-to-human transmission” is evident.
Within 24 hours, before they got a chance to make their presentation to the president, the plan went awry.
Mr. Trump was walking up the steps of Air Force One to head home from India on Feb. 25 when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, publicly issued the blunt warning they had all agreed was necessary.
But Dr. Messonnier had jumped the gun. They had not told the president yet, much less gotten his consent.
On the 18-hour plane ride home, Mr. Trump fumed as he watched the stock market crash after Dr. Messonnier’s comments. Furious, he called Mr. Azar when he landed at around 6 a.m. on Feb. 26, raging that Dr. Messonnier had scared people unnecessarily. Already on thin ice with the president over a variety of issues and having overseen the failure to quickly produce an effective and widely available test, Mr. Azar would soon find his authority reduced.
The meeting that evening with Mr. Trump to advocate social distancing was canceled, replaced by a news conference in which the president announced that the White House response would be put under the command of Vice President Mike Pence.
The push to convince Mr. Trump of the need for more assertive action stalled. With Mr. Pence and his staff in charge, the focus was clear: no more alarmist messages. Statements and media appearances by health officials like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield would be coordinated through Mr. Pence’s office. It would be more than three weeks before Mr. Trump would announce serious social distancing efforts, a lost period during which the spread of the virus accelerated rapidly.
Over nearly three weeks from Feb. 26 to March 16, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States grew from 15 to 4,226. Since then, nearly half a million Americans have tested positive for the virus and authorities say hundreds of thousands more are likely infected.
The China Factor
The earliest warnings about coronavirus got caught in the crosscurrents of the administration’s internal disputes over China. It was the China hawks who pushed earliest for a travel ban. But their animosity toward China also undercut hopes for a more cooperative approach by the world’s two leading powers to a global crisis.
It was early January, and the call with a Hong Kong epidemiologist left Matthew Pottinger rattled.
Mr. Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and a hawk on China, took a blunt warning away from the call with the doctor, a longtime friend: A ferocious, new outbreak that on the surface appeared similar to the SARS epidemic of 2003 had emerged in China. It had spread far more quickly than the government was admitting to, and it wouldn’t be long before it reached other parts of the world.
Mr. Pottinger had worked as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic, and was still scarred by his experience documenting the death spread by that highly contagious virus.
Now, seventeen years later, his friend had a blunt message: You need to be ready. The virus, he warned, which originated in the city of Wuhan, was being transmitted by people who were showing no symptoms — an insight that American health officials had not yet accepted. Mr. Pottinger declined through a spokesman to comment.
It was one of the earliest warnings to the White House, and it echoed the intelligence reports making their way to the National Security Council. While most of the early assessments from the C.I.A. had little more information than was available publicly, some of the more specialized corners of the intelligence world were producing sophisticated and chilling warnings.
In a report to the director of national intelligence, the State Department’s epidemiologist wrote in early January that the virus was likely to spread across the globe, and warned that the coronavirus could develop into a pandemic. Working independently, a small outpost of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Center for Medical Intelligence, came to the same conclusion. Within weeks after getting initial information about the virus early in the year, biodefense experts inside the National Security Council, looking at what was happening in Wuhan, started urging officials to think about what would be needed to quarantine a city the size of Chicago.
By mid-January there was growing evidence of the virus spreading outside China. Mr. Pottinger began convening daily meetings about the coronavirus. He alerted his boss, Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser.
The early alarms sounded by Mr. Pottinger and other China hawks were freighted with ideology — including a push to publicly blame China that critics in the administration say was a distraction as the coronavirus spread to Western Europe and eventually the United States.
And they ran into opposition from Mr. Trump’s economic advisers, who worried a tough approach toward China could scuttle a trade deal that was a pillar of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.
With his skeptical — some might even say conspiratorial — view of China’s ruling Communist Party, Mr. Pottinger initially suspected that President Xi Jinping’s government was keeping a dark secret: that the virus may have originated in one of the laboratories in Wuhan studying deadly pathogens. In his view, it might have even been a deadly accident unleashed on an unsuspecting Chinese population.
During meetings and telephone calls, Mr. Pottinger asked intelligence agencies — including officers at the C.I.A. working on Asia and on weapons of mass destruction — to search for evidence that might bolster his theory.
They didn’t have any evidence. Intelligence agencies did not detect any alarm inside the Chinese government that analysts presumed would accompany the accidental leak of a deadly virus from a government laboratory. But Mr. Pottinger continued to believe the coronavirus problem was far worse than the Chinese were acknowledging. Inside the West Wing, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, Joe Grogan, also tried to sound alarms that the threat from China was growing.
Mr. Pottinger, backed by Mr. O’Brien, became one of the driving forces of a campaign in the final weeks of January to convince Mr. Trump to impose limits on travel from China — the first substantive step taken to impede the spread of the virus and one that the president has repeatedly cited as evidence that he was on top of the problem.
In addition to the opposition from the economic team, Mr. Pottinger and his allies among the China hawks had to overcome initial skepticism from the administration’s public health experts.
Travel restrictions were usually counterproductive to managing biological outbreaks because they prevented doctors and other much-needed medical help from easily getting to the affected areas, the health officials said. And such bans often cause infected people to flee, spreading the disease further.
But on the morning of Jan. 30, Mr. Azar got a call from Dr. Fauci, Dr. Redfield and others saying they had changed their minds. The World Health Organization had declared a global public health emergency and American officials had discovered the first confirmed case of person-to-person transmission inside the United States.
The economic team, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, continued to argue that there were big risks in taking a provocative step toward China and moving to curb global travel. After a debate, Mr. Trump came down on the side of the hawks and the public health team. The limits on travel from China were publicly announced on Jan. 31.
Still, Mr. Trump and other senior officials were wary of further upsetting Beijing. Besides the concerns about the impact on the trade deal, they knew that an escalating confrontation was risky because the United States relies heavily on China for pharmaceuticals and the kinds of protective equipment most needed to combat the coronavirus.
But the hawks kept pushing in February to take a critical stance toward China amid the growing crisis. Mr. Pottinger and others — including aides to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — pressed for government statements to use the term “Wuhan Virus.”
Mr. Pompeo tried to hammer the anti-China message at every turn, eventually even urging leaders of the Group of 7 industrialized countries to use “Wuhan virus” in a joint statement.
Others, including aides toMr. Pence, resisted taking a hard public line, believing that angering Beijing might lead the Chinese government to withhold medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and any scientific research that might ultimately lead to a vaccine.
Mr. Trump took a conciliatory approach through the middle of March, praising the job Mr. Xi was doing.
That changed abruptly, when aides informed Mr. Trump that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman had publicly spun a new conspiracy about the origins of Covid-19: that it was brought to China by U.S. Army personnel who visited the country last October.
Mr. Trump was furious, and he took to his favorite platform to broadcast a new message. On March 16, he wrote on Twitter that “the United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus.”
Mr. Trump’s decision to escalate the war of words undercut any remaining possibility of broad cooperation between the governments to address a global threat. It remains to be seen whether that mutual suspicion will spill over into efforts to develop treatments or vaccines, both areas where the two nations are now competing.
One immediate result was a free-for-all across the United States, with state and local governments and hospitals bidding on the open market for scarce but essential Chinese-made products. When the state of Massachusetts managed to procure 1.2 million masks, it fell to the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert K. Kraft, a Trump ally, to cut through extensive red tape on both sides of the Pacific to send his own plane to pick them up.
The Consequences of Chaos
The chaotic culture of the Trump White House contributed to the crisis. A lack of planning and a failure to execute, combined with the president’s focus on the news cycle and his preference for following his gut rather than the data cost time, and perhaps lives.
Inside the West Wing, Mr. Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, was widely seen as quick-tempered, self-important and prone to butting in. He is among the most outspoken of China hawks and in late January was clashing with the administration’s health experts over limiting travel from China.
So it elicited eye rolls when, after initially being prevented from joining the coronavirus task force, he circulated a memo on Jan. 29 urging Mr. Trump to impose the travel limits, arguing that failing to confront the outbreak aggressively could be catastrophic, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.
The uninvited message could not have conflicted more with the president’s approach at the time of playing down the severity of the threat. And when aides raised it with Mr. Trump, he responded that he was unhappy that Mr. Navarro had put his warning in writing.
From the time the virus was first identified as a concern, the administration’s response was plagued by the rivalries and factionalism that routinely swirl around Mr. Trump and, along with the president’s impulsiveness, undercut decision making and policy development.
Faced with the relentless march of a deadly pathogen, the disagreements and a lack of long-term planning had significant consequences. They slowed the president’s response and resulted in problems with execution and planning, including delays in seeking money from Capitol Hill and a failure to begin broad surveillance testing.
Even after Mr. Azar first briefed him about the potential seriousness of the virus during a phone call on Jan. 18 while the president was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Mr. Trump projected confidence that it would be a passing problem.
“We have it totally under control,” he told an interviewer a few days later while attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “It’s going to be just fine.”
Back in Washington, voices outside of the White House peppered Mr. Trump with competing assessments about what he should do and how quickly he should act.
The efforts to sort out policy behind closed doors were contentious and sometimes only loosely organized.
That was the case when the National Security Council convened a meeting on short notice on the afternoon of Jan. 27. The Situation Room was standing room only, packed with top White House advisers, low-level staffers, Mr. Trump’s social media guru, and several cabinet secretaries. There was no checklist about the preparations for a possible pandemic, which would require intensive testing, rapid acquisition of protective gear, and perhaps serious limitations on Americans’ movements.
Instead, after a 20-minute description by Mr. Azar of his department’s capabilities, the meeting was jolted when Stephen E. Biegun, the newly installed deputy secretary of state, announced plans to issue a “level four” travel warning, strongly discouraging Americans from traveling to China. The room erupted into bickering.
A few days later, on the evening of Jan. 30, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff at the time, and Mr. Azar called Air Force One as the president was making the final decision to go ahead with the restrictions on China travel. Mr. Azar was blunt, warning that the virus could develop into a pandemic and arguing that China should be criticized for failing to be transparent.
Mr. Trump rejected the idea of criticizing China, saying the country had enough to deal with. And if the president’s decision on the travel restrictions suggested that he fully grasped the seriousness of the situation, his response to Mr. Azar indicated otherwise.
Stop panicking, Mr. Trump told him.
That sentiment was present throughout February, as the president’s top aides reached for a consistent message but took few concrete steps to prepare for the possibility of a major public health crisis.
During a briefing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, senators urged administration officials to take the threat more seriously. Several asked if the administration needed additional money to help local and state health departments prepare.
Derek Kan, a senior official from the Office of Management and Budget, replied that the administration had all the money it needed, at least at that point, to stop the virus, two senators who attended the briefing said.
“Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, wrote in a tweet shortly after. “Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough.”
The administration also struggled to carry out plans it did agree on. In mid-February, with the effort to roll out widespread testing stalled, Mr. Azar announced a plan to repurpose a flu-surveillance system in five major cities to help track the virus among the general population. The effort all but collapsed even before it got started as Mr. Azar struggled to win approval for $100 million in funding and the C.D.C. failed to make reliable tests available.
The number of infections in the United States started to surge through February and early March, but the Trump administration did not move to place large-scale orders for masks and other protective equipment, or critical hospital equipment, such as ventilators. The Pentagon sat on standby, awaiting any orders to help provide temporary hospitals or other assistance.
As February gave way to March, the president continued to be surrounded by divided factions even as it became clearer that avoiding more aggressive steps was not tenable.
Mr. Trump had agreed to give an Oval Office address on the evening of March 11 announcing restrictions on travel from Europe, where the virus was ravaging Italy. But responding to the views of his business friends and others, he continued to resist calls for social distancing, school closures and other steps that would imperil the economy.
But the virus was already multiplying across the country — and hospitals were at risk of buckling under the looming wave of severely ill people, lacking masks and other protective equipment, ventilators and sufficient intensive care beds. The question loomed over the president and his aides after weeks of stalling and inaction: What were they going to do?
The approach that Mr. Azar and others had planned to bring to him weeks earlier moved to the top of the agenda. Even then, and even by Trump White House standards, the debate over whether to shut down much of the country to slow the spread was especially fierce.
Always attuned to anything that could trigger a stock market decline or an economic slowdown that could hamper his re-election effort, Mr. Trump also reached out to prominent investors like Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chief executive of Blackstone Group, a private equity firm.
“Everybody questioned it for a while, not everybody, but a good portion questioned it,” Mr. Trump said earlier this month. “They said, let’s keep it open. Let’s ride it.”
In a tense Oval Office meeting, when Mr. Mnuchin again stressed that the economy would be ravaged, Mr. O’Brien, the national security adviser, who had been worried about the virus for weeks, sounded exasperated as he told Mr. Mnuchin that the economy would be destroyed regardless if officials did nothing.
Soon after the Oval Office address, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and a trusted sounding board inside the White House, visited Mr. Trump, partly at the urging of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Dr. Gottlieb’s role was to impress upon the president how serious the crisis could become. Mr. Pence, by then in charge of the task force, also played a key role at that point in getting through to the president about the seriousness of the moment in a way that Mr. Azar had not.
But in the end, aides said, it was Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the veteran AIDS researcher who had joined the task force, whohelped to persuade Mr. Trump. Soft-spoken and fond of the kind of charts and graphs Mr. Trump prefers, Dr. Birx did not have the rough edges that could irritate the president. He often told people he thought she was elegant.
On Monday, March 16, Mr. Trump announced new social distancing guidelines, saying they would be in place for two weeks. The subsequent economic disruptions were so severe that the president repeatedly suggested that he wanted to lift even those temporary restrictions. He frequently asked aides why his administration was still being blamed in news coverage for the widespread failures involving testing, insisting the responsibility had shifted to the states.
During the last week in March, Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser involved in task force meetings, gave voice to concerns other aides had. She warned Mr. Trump that his wished-for date of Easter to reopen the country likely couldn’t be accomplished. Among other things, she told him, he would end up being blamed by critics for every subsequent death caused by the virus.
Within days, he watched images on television of a calamitous situation at Elmhurst Hospital Center, miles from his childhood home in Queens, N.Y., where 13 people had died from the coronavirus in 24 hours.
He left the restrictions in place.
Mark Walker contributed reporting from Washington, and Mike Baker from Seattle. Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Frequently Asked Questions and AdviceUpdated April 11, 2020
When will this end?This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
What should I do if I feel sick?If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How does coronavirus spread?It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Should I pull my money from the markets?That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
So, when I was in seminary in 1974 I was going through a difficult but exciting stretch of time. I had moved into a room in the top story of the seminary’s administrative building without telling anyone and was living there. I had a small 33 1/3 record player and two albums, the Kris Kristofferson album which featured the song “Why Me Lord” and John Prine’s eponymous album. I listened to them over and over, while avoiding my theological work, and memorized all the lyrics. I still remember them all. They were a life-changer. Thanks be to God for John Prine.
John Prine, Grammy-winning bard of ‘broken hearts and dirty windows,’ dies at 73 of coronavirus
John Prine was a raspy-voiced heartland troubadour who wrote and performed songs about faded hopes, failing marriages, flies in the kitchen and the desperation of people just getting by. He was, as one of his songs put it, the bard of “broken hearts and dirty windows.”
A onetime Army mechanic and mail carrier who wrote songs rooted in the experiences of lower-middle-class life, Mr. Prine rose to prominence almost by accident. He was at a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg one night in 1969, complaining about the performers, when someone challenged him to get onstage, saying, “You get up and try.”
Emboldened by a few beers, he picked up his guitar and sang three of his original songs. Within a year, he released his first album and was hailed as one of the foremost lyricists of his time, even as a musical heir to Bob Dylan.
He went on to record more than 20 albums, win three competitive Grammy Awards and help define a genre of music that came to be called Americana. He was a significant influence on a younger generation of singer-songwriters, including Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who called him “the closest thing I could imagine to ever being around Mark Twain.”
Mr. Prine, 73, died April 7 in Nashville of complications from the novel coronavirus, the media relations firm Sacks & Co. said on behalf of his family. He overcame throat cancer in the 1990s and lung cancer in 2013.
The three tunes Mr. Prine sang at his debut performance in Chicago were written during his breaks while delivering mail. All became classics in the singer-songwriter tradition: “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam vet returning home with a drug habit; “Hello in There,” about the emotional loneliness of older people; and “Paradise,” an autobiographical lament about his family’s Kentucky hometown, plowed under to make way for strip mines.
Not long after he received a glowing review from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, Mr. Prine quit his job with the Postal Service. His supervisor told him, “You’ll be back.”
His songs about blue-collar woes and hard-luck lives soon attracted a devoted following, which included Dylan, who described Mr. Prine’s work as “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
When Mr. Prine was a 24-year-old mail carrier, he received a career boost from his friend Steve Goodman, a Chicago musician who wrote “The City of New Orleans.” Goodman persuaded singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson to listen to Mr. Prine after hours at a Chicago club. After listening to about seven songs, Kristofferson asked Mr. Prine to play them all again.
“He was unlike anybody I’d ever seen — such a young kid, and yet he’s writing songs like ‘Hello in There,’ ” Kristofferson told The Washington Post in 2005. “John was singing some of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and they still are the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
In “Hello in There,” an old man reflects on his life and its litany of sorrows: “We lost Davy in the Korean War, and I still don’t know what for, it don’t matter anymore.”
In the song’s chorus, Mr. Prine sings, “Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”
From the beginning, he combined pathos and humor, the lyrical and the satirical. One of his more high-spirited tunes, “Illegal Smile,” was interpreted as a nod to marijuana. Another was a spoof of the letters to advice columnist Abigail Van Buren:
Dear Abby, Dear Abby . . .
My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks.
Every side I get up on is the wrong side of bed,
If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.
“He is a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people,” Ted Kooser, the 2005 poet laureate of the United States, said of Mr. Prine. “He did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Vietnam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ ”
“Sam Stone” is a chilling ballad about a wounded veteran with the gravity of a three-act play. Mr. Prine describes the vet coming home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back” and how “the morphine eased the pain” of his physical and psychic wounds.
A recurring chorus suggests the poignant view of a child growing up too soon: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin,’ I suppose.”
Some listeners were offended by the invocation of Jesus in a song about drug addiction, but Mr. Prine said he was “just trying to think of something as hopeless” as a Vietnam vet succumbing to his private demons.
“You write a song about something that you think might be taboo,” he told Rolling Stone, “you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it.”
His 1971 debut album, titled simply “John Prine,” received strong reviews — “he squeezes poetry out of the anguished longing of empty lives,” a Time magazine critic wrote — but modest sales.
Other performers recognized his talent, however, and Bette Midler and Joan Baez both recorded“Hello in There.” The Everly Brothers did a version of “Paradise,” and Johnny Cash sang “Sam Stone” (omitting the line about Jesus). Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty did background vocals for Mr. Prine’s 1992 album “The Missing Years,” and Bonnie Raitt had a memorable interpretation of “Angel From Montgomery,” which Mr. Prine wrote from the perspective of a woman regretting the missed opportunities in life.
His unadorned melodies were effective vehicles for introspective lyrics drawn from everyday sources. A haunting line from “Sam Stone” — “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios” — was inspired by an Army buddy whose radio was held together with electrical tape.
When he wrote “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring?” for the 1971 song “Far From Me,” Mr. Prine said he recalled an image from childhood of broken glass sparkling in the city dump near his house.
“I don’t know of a better thing to follow as a writer than what your gut instinct tells you,” he said. “That’s where everything springs from.”
‘Broken hearts and dirty windows’
John Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood, Ill., one of four sons. His father was a factory worker and a union official, his mother a homemaker.
His grandfather had played guitar with the Everly Brothers’ father in Kentucky, and Mr. Prine’s own father enjoyed listening to the music of Hank Williams.
“I used to just sit and watch how he would be so moved by the songs,” Mr. Prine told the Los Angeles Times. “In fact, I might have been more affected by the way the songs touched him than by the songs themselves — they seemed to have such power.”
When he was 14, Mr. Prine learned to play guitar from his older brother Dave. Two of his brothers became musicians, and another was a police officer.
After completing high school, Mr. Prine was drafted into the Army and served in Germany, where he said he spent his time “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.” He returned to the Chicago suburbs and took a job with the Postal Service.
Mr. Prine’s music reflected his abiding connection to Kentucky, the birthplace of both of his parents. One of his most enduring songs, “Paradise,” is about the town in western Kentucky “where all my relatives came from,” uprooted in the 1960s by strip mines and a power plant:
Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking.
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
Before moving to Nashville in 1980, Mr. Prine had recorded seven albums for major labels, both of which dropped him. He launched his own record company, Oh Boy, which allowed him to pursue a more casual approach. He kept expenses down by driving himself to concert venues. His contract “riders” rejected expensive catering options in favor of supermarket deli platters, a bottle of vodka and Orange Crush soda.
Over the years, Mr. Prine experimented with musical styles, from raw country to hard-charging rockabilly, but his greatest gift was his ability to draw deep emotions from simple lyrics. “Broken hearts and dirty windows / Make life difficult to see,” he wrote in one of his early songs, “Souvenirs.” “That’s why last night and this mornin’ / Always look the same to me.”
He framed one of his most complex songs, “Lake Marie,” from the 1995 album “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” as a virtual epic. In his 2017 book, “Beyond Words,” he said he wanted the song to begin with a spoken verse, delivered as a history lesson, about two lakes named for baby girls found abandoned in the woods.
With casual but memorable lines — “the wind was blowing, especially through her hair” — the song shifts to became the story of a couple “trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever seemed easier.”
Mr. Prine’s first two marriages, to Ann Carole Menaloscino and musician Rachel Peer, ended in divorce. (“Divorces have a way of turning into memorable songs for me,” he said.) In 1993, he married Fiona Whelan, who became his manager. They had two sons, and he adopted her son from a previous relationship. Fiona Whelan Prine said she also contracted the coronavirus.
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Prine is survived by two brothers and three grandchildren.
Mr. Prine received Grammy Awards for best contemporary folk album for “The Missing Years” (1991) and “Fair & Square” (2005) and received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2015. He was named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 and earlier this year received the Grammy for lifetime achievement.
In the late 1990s, he underwent surgery and radiation treatment for cancer in his throat. He quit smoking, and the operation left his head tilted at a noticeable angle. His voice deepened into a growling baritone, as weathered and scarred as his music. Part of a lung was removed after another bout of cancer in 2013.
In 2018, Mr. Prine released his first album of new music in 13 years. The 10 songs on “The Tree of Forgiveness” (some written with collaborators) showed the same blend of humor, sorrow and outrage that had long been his hallmark. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart and No. 5 on the pop chart, giving the 72-year-old Mr. Prine the biggest hit record of his career.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to describe the world the way I wished it would be,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s why when I finish a song, I’ll sit back and look at it and think, ‘Now if you could only practice some of those things in your own life . . . you wouldn’t have to write all these damn songs.’ ”
On Feb. 27, two days after the first reported case of the coronavirus spreading inside a community in the United States, Candace Owens was underwhelmed. “Now we’re all going to die from Coronavirus,” she wrote sarcastically to her two million Twitter followers, blaming a “doomsday cult” of liberal paranoia for the growing anxiety over the outbreak.
One month later, on the day the United States reached the grim milestone of having more documented coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world, Ms. Owens — a conservative commentator whom President Trump has called “a real star” — was back at it, offering what she said was “a little perspective” on the 1,000 American deaths so far. “The 2009 swine flu infected 1.4 Billion people around the world, and killed 575,000 people,” she wrote. “There was no media panic, and societies did not shut down.”
In the weeks leading up to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, tens of millions of Americans who get their information from media personalities like Ms. Owens heard that this once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis was actually downright ordinary.
The president’s backers sometimes seemed to take their cues from him. On Feb. 26, the day before Ms. Owens was a guest at the White House for an African-American History Month reception, Mr. Trump denied it would spread further. “I don’t think it’s inevitable,” he said.
At other times, the president echoed right-wing media stars. When he declared at a campaign rally two days later that criticism of his halting response was a “new hoax,” commentators like Laura Ingraham of Fox News had already been accusing his opponents of exploiting the crisis. “A coronavirus,” she said on Feb. 25, “that’s a new pathway for hitting President Trump.” And when he falsely asserted that he had treated the outbreak as a pandemic all along, Fox hosts like Sean Hannity backed him up, saying that Mr. Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China and Europe would “go down as the single most consequential decision in history.”
A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March — when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others — shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among many of Mr. Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew.
It was during this lull — before the human and economic toll became undeniable — when the story of the coronavirus among the president’s most stalwart defenders evolved into the kind of us-versus-them clash that Mr. Trump has waged for much of his life.
Now, with the nation’s economic and physical health in clear peril, Mr. Trump and many of his allies on the airwaves and online are blaming familiar enemies in the Democratic Party and the news media.
The pervasiveness of the denial among many of Mr. Trump’s followers from early in the outbreak, and their sharp pivot to finding fault with an old foe once the crisis deepened, is a pattern that one expert in the spread of misinformation said resembled a textbook propaganda campaign.
Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of a book on political manipulation called “Network Propaganda,” said that as the magnitude of the virus’s effects grew and the coverage on the right shifted, Mr. Trump’s loyalists benefited from having told people not to believe what they were hearing. “The same media that’s been producing this intentional ignorance is saying what they’ve always been saying: ‘We’re right. They’re wrong,’” he said. “But it also permits them to turn on a dime.”
“We can look at that and get whiplashed,” he added. “But from the inside it doesn’t look like whiplash.”
Step 1: Blame China
In January and early February, when the virus ravaged China and doubts grewabout how forthcoming Chinese officials were being, some pundits on the right warned that the country couldn’t be trusted to contain the outbreak or share accurate information about where it originated.
Starting in late January, Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show became an early outlier in conservative media, sounding the alarm about a “mysterious” sickness spreading in Wuhan, China, that had killed about two dozen people. According to Mr. Carlson, speaking on Jan. 23, it was “believed to have jumped from bats and snakes — which are commonly eaten in this part of China — to people.”
Fox News became a launching pad for the idea of halting travel from China, which guests like Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, urged while also at times suggesting that the virus had been created in a Chinese government laboratory not far from the epicenter of the outbreak. On Jan. 31, the Trump administration said it would bar entry by most foreign citizens who had recently visited China.
Some of Mr. Carlson’s Fox colleagues were less convinced of the threat. “Do I look nervous? No. I’m not afraid of this coronavirus at all,” Jesse Watters, a co-host of “The Five,” said on Jan. 30 as he teased another host for “shaking in his shoes.”
Fox News declined to comment.
Step 2: Play down the risks
In the weeks that followed, thousands would die from the virus around the world, thousands more would be sickened across Europe and the first cases would emerge in the United States. But the tone of the coverage from Fox, talk radio and the commentators who make up the president’s zealous online army remained dismissive.
Talk show hosts and prominent right-wing writers criticized other conservatives who took the threat seriously. “Drudge has a screaming headline,” Rush Limbaugh announced on Feb. 26, referring to Matt Drudge and his website. “Flight attendant working L.A.X. tests positive. Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” For years, Mr. Limbaugh has encouraged his audience to be suspicious of science as one of his so-called Four Corners of Deceit, which also include government, academia and media.
On Feb. 27, Mr. Hannity opened his show in a rage. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said, adding, “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” His program would be one of many platforms with large audiences of conservatives — 5.6 million people watched Mr. Hannity interview the president on Fox last week — to misleadingly highlight statistics on deaths from the seasonal flu as a comparison.
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On Feb. 28, Mr. Limbaugh read from an article from The Western Journal, a website that was blacklisted by Apple News last year for promoting articles Apple determined were “overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” The coronavirus, Mr. Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the media “keep promoting panic.”
Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart News whose work on the virus has been cited by Mr. Hannity, published several articles in February and early March that highlighted the least severe symptoms and best possible outcomes. On Feb. 28, he urged people to “chill out.”
The first of more than 4,500 American deaths to date would occur the next day. Two days later, Mr. Pollak wrote another article criticizing a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who warned that the coronavirus was likely to spread. The doctor was the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, he noted, “who was once suspected of trying to help remove the president from office.” He assured his readers that he saw “no conspiracy” — only “the ordinary problem of scientists not being very good at communicating to the public.”
Mr. Pollak, whose articles were breezier in tone than much of the coverage elsewhere on Breitbart, declined to comment.
Faced with the inescapable fact that the virus was killing people, many conservatives started sounding fatalistic. Yes it’s deadly, they acknowledged, but so are a lot of other things. “How many people have died this year in the United States from snake bites?” the conservative radio host Dennis Prager asked in an online “fireside chat” posted March 12 to his website, PragerU, where it has been viewed more than 600,000 times.
On March 10, the day that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned every American to adopt an “all hands on deck” mind-set, Ms. Owens scoffed at what she called “the mass global mental breakdown” as financial markets plunged. “People think it’s novel that 80 year olds are dying at a high rate from a flu,” she wrote, adding that when future generations study the world’s coronavirus response, “This tweet will age well.”
Ms. Owens is the kind of influential conservative — she has a huge online audience as well as sway with the White House and top cable news and radio producers — who has been central to spreading doubt about the seriousness of the virus to Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters.
In an interview, Ms. Owens said she did not believe that her tweets were irresponsible. “Do I think it’s irresponsible to say the economic impact will be the legacy?” she said. “It’s not about being responsible. It’s about being honest.”
Step 3: Share ‘survivor’ stories
After playing down the risks, some broadcasters turned to coronavirus survivor stories.
On March 13th, “Fox & Friends” ran a segment featuring a 65-year-old woman who said she caught the virus and barely had any symptoms. During the interview, the host Steve Doocy asked about the “absolute panic” and noted the concern about older people in particular. “Well look at that,” he said to the woman. “But you are over 60, and it doesn’t seem to have been a big deal to you, right?” Mr. Doocy said.
The interview was picked up that afternoon by Mr. Limbaugh, where its reach grew considerably given his 15.5 million listeners each week. Earlier that week, when a caller said that he and his wife believed they might have been infected before the virus was known to be widespread, Mr. Limbaugh dismissed him. “Let me ask you a question,” the host said. “Did you two die, and you are speaking to me from beyond the grave?”
On social media, people often responded with ridicule. They called the virus a “bad cold” and circulated memes of a red T-shirt that said “I survived Coronavirus 2020.”
Step 4: Blame the left
By the middle of March, the story of the virus on the right was one of how Mr. Trump’s enemies had weaponized “the flu” and preyed on the insecurities of an emasculated America.
Mr. Limbaugh blamed “wimp politics — which is liberalism.” Mr. Pollak, whose tone grew more serious, said the virus had spread while Democrats stretched out the president’s impeachment. “We now know the cost of impeachment,” he wrote.
Frank Luntz, the veteran political strategist who advises Republican leaders, said many on the right were applying the scornful, “own the libs” mentality of social media to a deadly and frightening health crisis.
Mr. Trump has also cast himself as a victim. “It’s so unfair. It’s so unfair,” he said last week to Mr. Hannity on Fox News. “If we could only have a fair media in this country, our country.”
Mr. Hannity and his fans may see criticism of the president as a histrionic meltdown of an anti-Trump mob, but the broadcaster has dialed back some denial. Elsewhere at Fox, Trish Regan, a Fox Business host, left the networkafter expressing doubt about the severity of the situation.
The criticism seemed to catch Mr. Hannity and other pro-Trump personalities at Fox off guard, according to people who work at the network, if only because they did not believe that their remarks on the coronavirus were any different from how they have defended the president as the victim of an orchestrated smear during other crises.
Mr. Hannity recently published a timeline of his own comments on the virus, which creates a revisionist impression that he was consistently raising concerns. The examples Mr. Hannity cites include his praise of the Trump administration’s response and declarations that the “greatest” and “best” scientists are working on the virus.
And in his interview with the president last week, Mr. Hannity cast blame on President Barack Obama for the deaths during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, saying Mr. Trump had been “very gracious” by not focusing on his predecessor’s failings, which he accused the news media of ignoring.
Stoking a sense of victimization, according to the president’s critics, is what has always worked for him.
“It’s a hoax, it’s a Democratic plot — that’s the degree to which Trump and Trumpism is fueled by grievance and a sense of constantly having to fight for survival,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who advised John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now a consultant for an anti-Trump group and an analyst for NBC News.
But treating a pandemic as politics as usual, Mr. Schmidt added, could have an extraordinary cost. “All the bombast and the delusional statements and the embrace of ignorance,” he said, “stand singularly alone at the top of a previously unreachable pyramid.”
There can be little doubt that many of the president’s supporters did not consider it bombast or delusion.
Calling into Rush Limbaugh’s program on March 13 — the day Mr. Trump declared a national emergency — Brian from Richmond, Va., urged the president to tell the nation to take a deep breath. “Wash your hands. Take precautions,” Brian said. “And don’t believe the fake news and the media hype. It’s not that serious.”
On Tuesday afternoon, California Highway Patrol officer Dillon Eckerfield was rumbling down Harbor Avenue on his police motorcycle, in San Pedro, Calif., when he witnessed a strange sight: a freight train flying off the end of the tracks.
It didn’t even try to slow down. He watched it smash through the concrete and steel barriers at the track’s dead end, near the Port of Los Angeles. It crashed through a chain-link fence, careened through a parking lot and another gravel lot — barely missing three occupied vehicles — and then finally, after taking out another fence, came to a halt.
Roughly 800 feet ahead was the USNS Mercy, the Navy medical ship providing relief to hospitals overburdened with coronavirus patients — where police now believe the train’s engineer was intentionally headed.
Eckerfield pulled a U-turn, speeding in the direction of the spectacular train wreck, according to an FBI affidavit describing the incident. As he approached, he could see a man in a bright yellow fluorescent vest jump down from the train’s cab and start running. He was easy to follow. Eckerfield sped into the West Basin Container Terminal, an enormous ship cargo yard, and found the man in the yellow vest walking toward him. Eckerfield drew his weapon and ordered the man onto the ground.
Right away, as Eckerfield placed him under arrest, the suspect spilled out his story.
“You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching,” the suspect, later identified as Eduardo Moreno, told Eckerfield. “I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”
Moreno, 44, was charged Wednesday in federal court with one count of train wrecking after admitting to intentionally running the train off the tracks in the direction of the Mercy hospital ship, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said in a statement. No one was injured in the wreck, which caused a “substantial fuel leak” handled by firefighters, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say Moreno was “suspicious of the USNS Mercy,” believing officials were lying about its true purpose. He believed “it had an alternate purpose related to covid-19 or a government takeover,” they said.
Moreno was held in jail overnight by local authorities before making his first appearance in federal court Tuesday on the train-wrecking charge, which carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.
Moreno could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday, and it’s unclear if he has an attorney. A spokesman for Anacostia Rail Holdings Company — which operates Moreno’s employer, Pacific Harbor Line — said in a statement to The Washington Post that Moreno’s locomotive was pulling a single rail car when it ran off the track at a high speed.
“Thankfully there were no injuries,” said the spokesman, Stefan Friedman. “The engineer of the train has been arrested and charged, and we are fully cooperating with all authorities as they proceed with their investigation.”
In interviews with the FBI and Los Angeles Port Police, Moreno said that “everything was normal” and “no one was pushing my buttons” when he came to work on Tuesday morning. He said he hadn’t spoken to anyone about wrecking a train, and didn’t even plan it himself until the idea came to him spontaneously that afternoon, he said.
It popped into his head as he contemplated the pandemic — particularly the hospital ship.
The USNS Mercy arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday to treat non-coronavirus trauma patients, thereby freeing up intensive-care at local hospitals treating covid-19 patients. The USNS Comfort arrived in New York for the same purpose.
But in a conspiratorial mind, Moreno told detectives he had been “putting the pieces together.” He no longer believed “the ship is what they say it’s for.” He believed “they are segregating us, and it needs to be put in the open,” according to the affidavit, which doesn’t explain what Moreno might have meant by that.
He was pushing his last train of the day, a cargo bound for Vietnam, when the idea hit him: He could “draw the world’s attention” to the USNS Mercy if he derailed the train, and then “people could see for themselves,” according to the affidavit. He could “wake people up,” he said.
“I don’t know. Sometimes you just get a little snap and man, it was fricking exciting,” Moreno told detectives. “I just had it and I was committed. I just went for it. I had one chance.”
It’s unclear if he intended to hit the ship directly or just crash near it.
Security cameras inside the train’s cab captured him hurtling toward the end of the tracks, the affidavit says. He made no attempt to pull back the throttle, no attempt to engage the brakes, instead putting the train in full speed.
At the last minute, Moreno lit a flare. He looked up at the camera, raising his middle finger to it. Then, just before the train smashed through the concrete barriers, he stuck the flare out the window, keeping it there all the way through impact.
He told the detectives, “I can’t wait to see the video.”