Donald Trump
Credit: Jamelle Bouie/Flickr

Trump’s rally in Tulsa last night was a disaster on so many levels it’s difficult to count them. From the bad optics and public health risks of holding a rally in the first place, to the mistake of originally setting it on Juneteenth in the location of the Tulsa race massacre, to the bizarre game of overinflated expectations the campaign made in promoting a million sign-ups for the rally that were largely generated by trolling Zoomers on Tiktok, to the desultory 6,200 person turnout forcing the overflow stage to speak to an empty parking lot, to the campaign placing the blame for the low turnout not on the responsible behavior of even hardcore Trump supporters during the pandemic (a good and encouraging development!) but on fear of “antifa protesters,” thereby not only lying but making his own supporters appear weak and intimidated in the bargain–all of it was a disaster of enormous proportions. And that’s before we even talk about what came out of Trump’s mouth during the event.

Because among the bizarre statements and absurdist pieces of performance art Trump displayed onstage (including a 10-minute riff on his own ability to walk down a gentle ramp, and a strange demonstration that he can actually drink a glass of water–if only slowly and carefully) came one of the most shocking admissions by a president in all modern history. Trump boasted that he had asked his officials to slow down COVID-19 testing because the rising number of cases was making him look bad.

“Here’s the bad part: when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”

He then emphasized the point by implying that many of the positive test results didn’t really matter if they were among young people likely to recover. He spoke dismissively of a “young man, 10 years old” who “got the sniffles–he’s gonna recover in about 15 minutes.” And then he waited for applause. Of course, some young people do die of COVID-19, and many more may have lifelong health complications that we are only just now beginning to understand.  Most importantly, even that healthy 10-year-old can then become a vector to transmit the disease to an aging or more vulnerable person with potentially fatal consequences. So of course it matters if he tests positive, and Trump’s dismissal of the importance of testing him speaks volumes about his lack of understanding of the pandemic and of his callousness in placing his own political interest ahead of public health.

But let’s come back to the main shocking statement: “I said to my people, slow the testing down please.” It is hard to overstate the sheer evil of it. The only way to stop a widespread pandemic is through mass, universal testing, aggressive contact tracing and isolation measures. To slow down testing for any reason virtually guarantees the deaths of thousands, to say nothing of broader damage to the social fabric and to the economy. To slow down testing for political reasons is particularly abominable.

It constitutes a criminal, negligent abuse of power so unspeakable and so unthinkable that there isn’t even a law, federal or international, to adequately cover the case. It is the sort of high crime that impeachment was explicitly designed for, because the potential for abuses of power by a chief executive potentate is so vast and variegated that it would be impossible to write laws for all the potential scenarios. But to explicitly slow walk testing in a once-in-a-century pandemic, just to reduce the number of publicized cases for purely political purposes, allowing the virus to spread unchecked just to keep the economy humming along a little longer and to make his own response appear somewhat less incompetent, is the essence of a high crime. Because the consequences are so deadly–potentially killing literally hundreds of thousands of his own fellow citizens and endangering the entire interconnected world–it constitutes nothing less than a national and global crime against humanity.

Of course, the Trump campaign and administration (is there even a difference at this point?) knew they would have to perform damage control. White House trade advisor Peter Navarro claimed that Trump was only “joking” in a “light moment.” But listen to the audio again. It is very clear that Trump wasn’t joking, and that the moment was anything but light. Trump was blithe, sarcastic and dismissive, but that’s very different from engaging in pretense. Trump clearly meant every word he said at that moment.

It’s also not the first time Trump has intimated as much.  At the very beginning of the pandemic Trump insisted that the virus would not spread and did not need to be taken too seriously, saying “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” Throughout the course of the pandemic he pooh-poohed the need for mass testing because the virus was either “under control” or would “disappear like a miracle.” The United States did not seek help from the World Health Organization to acquire tests (the WHO does tend to assist developing countries), but then the CDC bungled the creation and implementation of domestic tests while Trump dithered. He repeatedly lied about the U.S. having the most stringent testing regimen in the world, while also saying that tests weren’t that helpful, and while not taking the necessary steps to ramp up testing. And Trump has repeatedly claimed that “testing is overrated” because “it makes us look bad.”

In other words, the president’s admission at his fizzled campaign rally last night that he asked his administration to slow down the testing because healthy 10-year-olds testing positive was made him look bad unfairly wasn’t a joke. It was merely the most direct confirmation of what was already obvious and what he had obliquely already mentioned before.

And yes: it is a crime against humanity. It is no joke. The resulting death toll could number in the hundreds of thousands domestically alone. And it constitutes one of the greatest criminal abuses of power in all of American history by a sitting president.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.