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We Need a 9/11 Commission for COVID

Deborah Birx’s attempt to whitewash her actions shows why we need a full accounting of what the Trump administration did.
April 5, 2021
We Need a 9/11 Commission for COVID
Deborah Brix, White House coronavirus response coordinator, looks on during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day, the president met with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Oval Office to discuss COVID-19 testing. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Dr. Deborah Birx’s attempts to rehabilitate her reputation haven’t told us anything we didn’t already know. In her CNN documentary interview, Birx went full shock-and-awe by saying, essentially, that something like 80 percent of our COVID fatalities could have been prevented.

But everyone in America who was paying attention understood—by the middle of the spring of 2020, at the latest—that then-President Trump was pursuing a policy of acceptable mass death. This was a policy choice, cloaked in lies and denial, that was designed in a misbegotten effort to protect the economy for the sole purpose of helping Trump’s re-election prospects.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans died—needlessly—as a result. As I said: We all knew this was happening, in real time. We might not have grasped just how high the body count would go. But we knew that Trump’s words and actions were helping the virus spread and resulting in tens of thousands of dead Americans.

But even in her confession, Birx was shading the truth. Here is what she said:

I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse. There were about a 100,000 deaths that came from the original surge. All of the rest, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially. If we took the lessons we had learned from that moment. That’s what bothers me every day.

But is it true those first 100,000 deaths were unavoidable? We crossed the 100,000 mark in late May 2020. By mid-April, Trump’s dereliction and lies had been exhaustively catalogued. See here and here and here and here.

If the rest of America understood exactly how badly Trump was handling the virus, then surely from the inside Birx and others knew what was wrong many weeks before 100,000 people had been claimed by the virus. Trump refused to do his job and stopped others from doing their jobs, too. Truth-tellers were punished, demoted, or fired, while liars and deniers were sent out as messengers to the American public.

By the time 200,000 Americans were dead, Trump himself got COVID. His office went to extraordinary measures to keep his true condition from the public, and lectured the country about not letting the virus “dominate” us. And then he lied again, saying he would make available to every American the combination of drugs he received. (Getting a monoclonal antibody cocktail is still hit-or-miss.)

In the weeks that followed, Trump hosted maskless superspreader events where he and his surrogates claimed that the overhyped pandemic would disappear the day after the election.

History will record these as the actions of a madman. Birx knows this, because she spent months of her life serving him cherry-picked data to reinforce his delusions and publicly covering for his insanity. So hers must not be allowed to become the last word on the 2020 pandemic. The American public cannot be left to wonder how Birx, and Mark Meadows, and Mike Pence, and Alex Azar, and every other one of the officials who was party to the greatest governmental failure in a century stayed silent while so many lives were lost.

Congress should pursue a complete account of the federal government’s handling of COVID-19, from the chief executive on down. There should be a 9/11-style commission, empowered to call witnesses, which details, blow-by-blow, exactly how a U.S. president succeeded in willfully endangering so many American lives and how the apparatus of the federal government failed to stop him.

We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of deaths to be whitewashed like the January 6 insurrection has been.

House Democrats seem to understand this. Last March 29, when we reached the first 1,000 COVID deaths, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CNN that people were dying while the president “fiddles.” She asked, “When did the president know about this, and what did he know? What did he know and when did he know it?” And added: “That’s for an after-action review.”

Last fall when House Democrats released an interim report, characterizing the administration’s pandemic response as “an American fiasco,” Republicans scoffed, dismissing it as partisan. Steve Scalise said—really, this is a real thing he said—“contrary to the Democrats’ baseless claims, the facts clearly show that President Trump’s leadership during this unprecedented pandemic has our country on a path to a full recovery.”

By the week Scalise charged out to protect the Dear Leader, a total of nearly 230,000 Americans had died. The “path to full recovery” wasn’t even halfway through our national nightmare.

But here’s the thing: Even as Scalise was lying to America, he knew, for a fact, that Trump had been lying. He knew this because he’d heard it, with his own ears, from the tapes which had emerged a few weeks prior in which Trump told Bob Woodward that he’s known all along how lethal the virus was and how easily it would spread.

“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward in a conversation on February 7. “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.” When confronted by Woodward in another interview on March 19, 2020, about how he’d lied to the American people, Trump said “I wanted to always play it down. . . . I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

So, like Birx, Scalise knew.

They all did.

And yet they kept lying even as Americans died by the scores of thousands.

In February 2021, Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, wrote to officials in the Biden administration requesting access to documents and witnesses previously blocked by the Trump administration, as House Democrats attempted to jump-start an investigation into the Trump administration’s “efforts to suppress science.”

It’s a start. But it’s only a start on the long road to what needs to become a broad, deep, and careful investigation with findings presented to the general public.

To take just the tip of the iceberg:

  • In the CNN special, former CDC director Robert Redfield said that despite Azar’s denials, he had been “most offended” when the HHS secretary asked him to doctor morbidity and mortality weekly reports.
  • Azar, who ignored a congressional subpoena about this allegation in December, should have to testify, under oath.
  • Jared Kushner was given broad procurement powers throughout the crisis. Were these used wisely? Or according to the administration’s political ends?

Joe Biden wants to restore voters’ faith that government can competently solve problems. Or at least not make them worse.

Part of this task will require not just executing on his own agenda, but rebuilding our belief that accountability does exist in government. That while bad actors might do bad things, they cannot get away with it forever. That the truth will out.

If science and facts are to triumph—if our country is to be better prepared for the next pandemic—then the history of our government’s unprecedented, unspeakable failures must be made a perfectly, and completely, clear part of the record.

Letting the people who contributed to this failure do modified, limited hangouts on CNN only adds to the deception and disgrace.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.