Yes, Donald Trump made their jobs nearly impossible. Still, the doctors, scientists, and officials who contributed to the bungling of the initial response to COVID-19 last year owe the public much more now than just their recent self-serving efforts to salvage their reputations. Americans have suffered, and continue to suffer, an almost unimaginable tragedy that erupted on the previous administration’s watch. The nation needs an independent accounting of how the richest and most scientifically advanced country in the world ended up in this horror show, an inquiry in which every former member of the Trump administration should cooperate.
The purpose isn’t to point fingers, but instead to learn from the past. COVID-19 won’t be the last outbreak that could lead to a pandemic, and there is simply no excuse if the largely preventable deaths of almost 550,000 Americans don’t lead to better preparation for the inevitable next scourge.
Just a few of the questions that need answers: How can authorities spot brewing pandemics earlier, even if they break out in uncooperative countries like China? What contributed to officials’ failures to take the threat seriously at first? How can we ensure there are adequate supplies of personal protective gear on hand, to avoid the hoarding and shortages of last year? Are there ways to streamline and prevent errors in the development and approval of tests, which other countries implemented much faster than the United States? Is there a way to avoid the every-state-for-itself scramble of last year’s deadly spring? Do public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention need more political independence?
Right now, the post-mortem of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic is playing out mostly via score-settling in the media. Several veterans of the Trump team broke their silence in interviews aired by CNN last week, including Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, who said that the deaths after the first 100,000 could largely have been prevented. Another official, testing czar Admiral Brett P. Giroir, said the administration lied to the public when they said millions of tests were available early in the outbreak. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that Trump administration officials pressured his agency to change coronavirus-related reports for political purposes.
According to Politico, several Trump administration veterans have been coordinating their stories in an effort to redeem their careers, fearing that a forthcoming book by former Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar will lump the blame for the coronavirus disaster on them. Other tell-all accounts, each with its own personal agenda, are undoubtedly in the works. And journalist Bob Woodward is reportedly working on a book about Trump’s overall coronavirus response, which will be yet another opportunity for shrewd Washington operators to attempt to put their own spin on the failures of the last year.
But for a tragedy of this scale, a congressionally-authorized inquiry like the Sept. 11 commission would be more appropriate.
There is no doubt, of course, that the primary responsibility for mishandling the crisis rests with the former president himself, who set the tone of denialism, wishful thinking, and incompetence that pervaded the federal response from the beginning. As Trump himself later acknowledged, he downplayed the dangers of the virus at first, and then promoted bogus cures like hydroxychloroquine and injecting bleach. The administration blanched at testing, even though that’s a critical tool for containing an outbreak, worried that positive results would make the president look bad. Having created a fiction, Trump then expected his staff to peddle it to the public. The president also constantly undercut public health guidance around closures and allowed mask-wearing to become a new front in the culture wars.
That’s the environment in which scientists like Birx and the other coronavirus doctors had to operate. To a certain extent, one can sympathize with the dilemma of political appointees who needed to stay on the president’s good side to keep their job. Birx told CNN she constantly thought about quitting, but asked herself every morning: “Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic?” It’s not unreasonable to think that if she and other doctors in the administration had simply quit in protest, it might have led Trump to install more outlandish quacks like Dr. Scott Atlas in their jobs. Over the last four years, competent officials across the federal government have had to search their conscience in the same way as the medical team, wondering whether staying in government amounted to complicity or whether leaving would only have made the Trump presidency worse.
But if the former Trump officials want Americans to believe they were fighting the good fight from the inside and rebuffing the president’s worst instincts, there’s no room for secrecy or spin now. They should be leading the charge for Congress to create an investigation to document exactly how the failures of the last year happened, and how they can be avoided in the future. Countries across the world have struggled to contain the coronavirus, but the grim fact is that no country on earth has lost as many of its citizens as the United States.
With hundreds of Americans still dying every day, it might seem premature to talk about a pandemic post-mortem. Still, the judgment of history is barreling down on the former president and his administration like a freight train. Birx, Azar, Redfield, and other former Trump officials are scrambling to get out of its way, but that’s going to take more than a CNN interview or a book deal.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.