My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy.
Donald Trump, June 2016
The simpler explanation is most likely the correct one.
South Korea and the United States each saw their first case of COVID-19 on the same day, January 20, 2020. Tonight, you can go out to eat at a restaurant in Seoul, or even in the hard-hit South Korean city of Daegu, with few restrictions. Large events are suspended, but otherwise businesses are functioning. Public markets are still open. Train stations and airports are accepting passengers. Over the past three weeks, new infections have plummeted in South Korea while the mortality rate hovers around levels normally seen with influenza. All the while, life there continues with relatively minor interruption.
Why are we sitting at home right now, waiting for a pandemic to run its course, haunted by a looming economic catastrophe, while residents in Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo carry on with life mostly as normal with little risk?
Disease is personal. Pandemic is political. Over the past century we’ve largely tamed infectious disease, at least at the mass level. Infections will never be eliminated, but we are no longer helpless against them. Like famine and extreme poverty, pandemic is a product of political dysfunction, not microbes.
Emerging diseases are just another test of a society’s capacity to identify and respond to reality. We failed to contain this disease while others succeeded. We failed because our political system was unable to recognize and respond to readily available data. Now we sit in our homes, harassed by a microbe, with no end in sight. Why did we fail?
Our President speaks in incoherent, narcissistic rambles and acts in ways that appear arbitrary and occasionally insane. As a consequence, we habitually attribute most of this Administration’s failures to his incompetence. However, we got a glimpse this week of a simpler and far darker explanation for our government’s dysfunction, one more consistent with the available evidence. Our government’s failure to respond to this crisis may have been less about stupidity than greed.
We learned this week that two Republican Senators, Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, responded to a sobering national security briefing on January 24 by making spectacularly large and lucrative stock trades calculated to profit from this non-public information. Loeffler’s crimes are particularly galling. While she touts herself as a simple farm girl, her career is built on being the wife of the Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. In that role, she and her husband benefit from the complex legal shields available to wealthy investors like Donald Trump.
Citing these financial shells that protect her and her husband’s assets, Loeffler insists that she had no knowledge of these trades and did not influence them. It should be noted that Loeffler also said this in public after being warned in an official briefing about the realities of this threat:
While Loeffler lied to her constituents about the danger they faced, her portfolio was being carefully adjusted to profit from this looming disaster. By miraculous luck, the anonymous souls responsible for her trades started dumping stocks the day she received her first classified briefing on the pandemic. Her stock sales (and her husband’s) were complete on February 14, augmented by a strategic investment in a teleworking tech company, Citrix. Citrix reached a new all-time high on March 18 after the rest of the market collapsed.
Loeffler lied to the public about warnings she’d received and the extent of the threat, yet money always tells the truth. Her portfolio somehow processed her inside information and began trading on it immediately, on the day of the briefing. It’s nice to be so lucky.
Loeffler has embraced the Trump playbook, painting herself as a victim of the liberal media. Meanwhile Richard Burr has had much less to say about the incident. He cashed out most of his portfolio, worth around a million dollars, after a stark February 12 briefing, while the market was at record highs. Burr is not among the Senate’s wealthier members and doesn’t benefit from the complex structuring that helps figures like Loeffler lie about their finances. He’s just counting on the system to fail to hold him accountable, which is as good a bet as his insider stock trades.
Why does this matter? Burr and Loeffler’s corrupt moves tell us everything we need to know about our government’s failure to respond to this crisis. Or rather, almost everything. We know about their trades because of financial disclosure requirements. We don’t have any meaningful, validated disclosure of the President’s finances.
We’re in the habit of chalking up Trump’s disastrous public policies to incompetence, but that’s mostly because his real motives remain carefully hidden. Republicans have fought to keep Donald Trump’s finances secret, and we get occasional peeks at how they are profiting from this culture of financial secrecy. But it’s tough to find the details.
Early in January, when it was clear to US officials that a threat was taking shape, why did the US fail to follow an established playbook in response to this threat? Why did the Trump Administration deliberately create obstacles to testing and decline to accept test kits from abroad? Why did the Administration, including the President himself, lie to the American public repeatedly for weeks about the basic facts and implications of this outbreak? And who benefited from this Administration’s otherwise baffling response?
It’s clear now from the available evidence that Senators like Loeffler got their financial affairs in order before publicly taking this threat seriously. Isn’t that the simplest, most consistent explanation of Trump’s approach to this crisis?
Let’s be clear about the nature of this pandemic. It was never that difficult to manage. China experienced a brief, mostly localized disaster from this outbreak thanks to secrecy, incompetence and corruption in a city government. Beyond Wuhan and its surrounding province, the disease affected few people, with a mortality rate comparable to China’s experience with influenza. Within a few weeks, rates of spread were declining, and life began a return to normal. COVID-19 doesn’t kill individuals by compromising their personal immune system. COVID-19 kills individuals unlucky enough to live in an immune-compromised society. COVID-19 destroys weakened civilizations.
There’s a decades-old blueprint for coping with pandemic. You’ll find a reference to “test, trace and treat” in a 1992 New York Times piece on HIV. This maxim has been the backbone of infectious disease response for generations, and it would have worked for COVID-19.
We deployed this approach in recent years to limit US exposure to MERS, SARS, Zika, West Nile and H1N1. We exported it to West Africa to contain Ebola. When we let bigotry and religion get in the way of sound policy, shutting down this commonsense approach, a very small and limited disease outbreak, like HIV, becomes a sweeping, lethal pandemic.
Pandemics that swept the world in recent years have had so little impact on the US that we scarcely noticed their existence. Apart from Ebola, which due to its horrifying symptoms and African origins touched a special nerve in the US, most Americans can’t name any of the world’s most recent pandemic outbreaks. Everyone knows how to manage these outbreaks. They become uncontrolled pandemics when a society fails. Disease is personal. Pandemic is political.
From a starting point on the same day in January, South Korea and the United States responded in dramatically different ways. Koreans followed the established blueprint, moving immediately to implement mass testing. On January 27, South Korea’s equivalent of our CDC organized a meeting with major pharmaceutical companies to press for test regime. A week later they approved the first application. Within days the country began deploying mobile test centers. By early March they were able to test more than 10,000 people a day, allowing them to track each virus transmission and focus new testing on those exposed to carriers.
Though large gatherings have been limited in South Korea, the country remains open. There is no need for a mass quarantine because their government responded quickly, using well-established best practices. We didn’t do this.
Starting from the same point of first-infection, by 16 March the US had performed only 74 tests per million inhabitants, compared with 5200 tests per million in South Korea. Establishing a broad testing capacity is the first priority in a disease outbreak. Imagine fighting a wildfire where fire is invisible and you can’t smell smoke. Testing is the keystone of pandemic response.
Once you set in place an effective testing program, it becomes much easier to trace new infections, something other countries have done with great success. When you can trace new infections, you can contain them with very localized quarantines. This step also enables earlier treatment, which limits mortality and lessens the impact on health care infrastructure. The blueprint works.
Here’s how the disease has progressed in tightly-packed South Korea:
Meanwhile, here’s how the US has responded:
Why didn’t the US, which helped to establish the pandemic blueprint, follow it? The Trump Administration isn’t answering these questions.
Here’s what we know so far about the US response to this threat. We know that Trump’s first pick to head the CDC, our most critical, front-line defense against pandemic, was Brenda Fitzgerald, an incompetent grifter who previously made a living in Georgia selling bogus anti-aging cures. She was bounced after her unethical investments in tobacco companies were disclosed. Trump’s next choice to head the CDC was a religious nut who led an abstinence-only campaign in response to the AIDS crisis. He once blamed that pandemic on the rise of “single-parent households.”
Trump fired the director of the country’s pandemic response team in 2018, appointing no replacement, effectively disbanding this crucial effort. He recently lied about the move, claiming to know nothing about it. However, just a few weeks ago, on February 26, he took credit for firing this team, explaining, “I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. Some of the people we’ve cut they haven’t been used for many, many years, and if we ever need them we can get them very quickly and rather than spending the money.”
Also in 2018, the Administration shut down most of the CDC’s global pandemic prevention effort, slashing its budget by 80%. One of the country’s where the CDC ended its engagement was China. No coherent explanation was given. As recently as two weeks ago, the Administration was still trying to slash the CDC’s budget, for reasons that remain utterly baffling and unexplained.
Our Department of Health and Human Services, which governs the CDC, is run by Alex Azar, former pharma lobbyist and President of Eli Lilly. The President’s “task force” for coordinating our COVID-19 response includes such elite scientific figures as Ken Cuccinelli, the prominent bigot and anti-immigration activist, Chris Liddell, a former CEO of a talent agency, Derek Kan, a former regional manager at Lyft, and Joseph Grogan, a lobbyist for pharma company Gilead Sciences.
In his great war against The Deep State, Trump has effectively incapacitated the federal government. We couldn’t run the standard, test, trace and treat playbook because Trump has wrecked our capacity to respond to almost any challenge. No one competent is in charge, and no relief is coming before the November Election.
While today Trump tries to blame China for our mess, a few weeks ago he was congratulating the Chinese for their handling of the pandemic. While the President bought time, lying to the public about the threat and even praising the Chinese, what was he trying to accomplish for himself, personally?
Burr and Loeffler gave us a peek at the Republican response to this national security nightmare. But Donald Trump has resisted any meaningful financial disclosures. We don’t know what he did about his personal finances when learned of this threat, but we know what he said. He lied, repeatedly, about the nature and details of the threat. He called it a Democratic hoax. Then when the lies became unsustainable, he lied about having lied. Why?
Who stood to benefit while the Administration slow-walked test kit approvals? Who would have lost money if the US decided to use one of the already available test regimens? Did the Trump family have any investments that might have benefited from a government contract? We have no way to know because Republicans have decided to protect the Trumps from disclosures.
Trump’s most visible business interest is a chain of hotels and golf courses. Hotel industry giants, Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton have each lost roughly half their value since February 21. What was Donald Trump doing to protect his interests between the first classified briefings about the virus in January and the stock market crash last month? While our President lied to the public about the seriousness of this crisis, what was he doing to liquidate assets and shore up his financing?
Though we know very little about the financial interests of the President’s family, we do know that Jared Kushner and his brother own an obscure health insurance entity called Oscar. The company is refusing to answer questions about its involvement in a potential COVID-19 testing scheme, including whether it is bidding on a government contract. This is the level of leadership ethics one expects in the kind of dysfunctional banana republic that gets overwhelmed by a simple, preventable disease.
An even more disturbing explanation for the President’s response to this crisis looms, one which can neither be proven nor dismissed under the veil of the President’s hidden finances. Trump has constantly harassed the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates even under a booming economy. A man who makes a living rolling from debt to debt has enormous interest rate exposure. What happens to Trump’s heavily leveraged portfolio when a national disaster pushes interest rates to zero?
Why are South Korea and Japan able to produce enough kits to follow the established, test, trace and treat model while we can’t even manufacture enough masks to protect emergency workers? Perhaps it’s because the people we selected to organize our response to such emergencies are Richard Burr, Kelly Loefler, Donald Trump, and a whole host of religious nuts and grifters, people who placed their personal interests over their duties. Perhaps it’s because the only force balancing this collection of outright crooks inside the GOP comes from people like Mike Pence, who prioritize a batshit ideology over science and evidence. We are locked in our houses because a powerful minority of mostly white Americans voted to put grifters, racists and religious nuts in charge of the country.
Someday, we may be able to attach a specific dollar amount of Trump family profit to each American life lost in this pandemic, but not until our rage boils over and we finally pierce the secrecy of the Trump family’s criminal enterprises. We won’t have an explanation for the disasters we experienced in this era, or the disasters likely to follow in its wake for years to come, until the Trump family finances are exposed to daylight.