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EDITORIAL

An incompetent in the White House

The country needs an inquiry to hold the president and his administration accountable for negligence that led to thousands of deaths.

President Trump spoke in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Wednesday.
President Trump spoke in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Wednesday.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Yes, we already knew that President Trump misled the public about the deadly threat of the novel coronavirus, even though his own staff had warned him of its dangers way back in January.

Still, there was something freshly nauseating about the tapes released by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward on Wednesday, in which Trump bluntly acknowledges in a February interview that that virus was “deadly stuff," at a time when in public he was insisting it was a flu-like bug that would soon pass.

And then, the next month, admitting he’d misled the American people. “I wanted to always play it down,” he told Woodward.

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Playing it down — while chastising state and local leaders who gave COVID-19 the serious response it deserved — set the stage for a preventable catastrophe. Almost 200,000 Americans have died, while countless others have lost jobs and endured major disruptions to life. The United States leads the world in coronavirus deaths, a grim testament to the federal government’s limp response to the virus. Had the president merely told Americans what he told Woodward in February — and, better yet, acted on that information with strict public health measures and vigilant preparation — thousands of victims might still be alive.

In the short term, President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus is certainly on the ballot in November. How much incompetence and dishonesty are Americans willing to tolerate from the president? And how much slack are they prepared to cut his defenders in Congress, who repeatedly put politics ahead of Americans' lives? The president’s campaign strategy is clearly to addle white Americans with fear-laced messages this fall, hoping that will be enough to scare them into accepting his gross incompetence.

But the coronavirus fiasco raises questions that go beyond electoral politics. What is clear is that leaders of the United States government — not just the president — sat on vitally important information. It is also clear that American society, writ large, was too vulnerable to misinformation, too divided politically, and too distrustful of science to respond effectively when the threat did become clear.

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With the coronavirus still raging, the first priority should obviously be to contain the outbreak. But the country also needs and deserves an honest look at how such a preventable tragedy was not prevented, and how to reform our government and institutions to stop the next pandemic.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress created a commission to examine the intelligence and law enforcement failures that preceded them. A look back at the pandemic would need a far broader scope, starting in the White House but extending to state public health agencies and encompassing social media platforms.

Does the federal government need a depoliticized way to route intelligence about public health threats to public health authorities? How can social media companies do a better job keeping misinformation and disinformation out of the public realm?

Changing the president, of course, is the single most important reform. The Woodward tapes make clear that Trump is not fit for the presidency and is incapable of dealing with a crisis on the scale of the coronavirus. After he leaves office, the nation needs a true inquiry into his handling of the virus — and how to be sure that no future president has the ability to make so many Americans suffer for their incompetence and callousness.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.