Today is March 11th. It is hard this morning to think about anything other than the anniversary this day marks. A year ago today, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Broadway shuttered. The NBA canceled its season. Oddly shocking, also, was the news that Tom Hanks and his wife had tested positive. As if we expected some sort of celebrity immunity to protect America’s best-liked stars.
It was a blizzard of bewildering headlines coming after days of portents of looming disaster — schools suddenly closed, colleges chose to empty, and rising death tolls in Europe foretold our own fate.
At that point there were only a couple dozen U.S. deaths from the pandemic. A few thousand deaths seemed possible, but half a million unthinkable. We did not yet know how bad the toll would be in terms of either death or disruption, just that it would be high. What we did know is that we would need aggressive, clear-eyed, and honest leadership to guide the nation through crisis.
We would need unity and candor and respect for science. We would need coordination and leadership from the White House. We would need PPE and ventilators and massive testing, as well as smart guidance for the public. What were the odds we would get proper leadership from Donald Trump, who had already repeatedly put his self-interest above the public interest?
From the start, Trump was focused on minimizing the coming crisis and exaggerating his own response. Consider some of the statements he made:
On January 20, 2020: “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
On February 26, 2020: “When you have 15 people … within a couple of days it’s going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
On February 27, 2020: “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.”
And of course, Trump would soon say, “Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all.”
When elected officials questioned the efficacy of Trump’s response, he called Democratic criticism “their new hoax.” For Trump, any challenge or accusation was a hoax and every crisis overblown.
It was against that backdrop that our town’s entire public school system, on Sunday March 8th, abruptly decided to shut down, indefinitely, because one person had tested positive for COVID-19.
Our family dinner felt heavy. Just like that, school was closed. Concerns were multiplying. After dinner, I went downstairs to do some work, I don’t even remember what. Probably preparing for that week’s podcast interview.
But I could not get any work done. I opened up Twitter and posted what I was thinking at that moment: “Donald Trump is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on America.” Then I posted again. And again. And again. For the next 33 minutes, I vented like I had never done before (and never have since). Anger and anxiety boiled over. This is the entire thread:
Donald Trump is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on America.
He is a liar.
He is a cheat.
He is a bad businessman.
He can’t spell.
He doesn’t read.
He doesn’t listen.
He has no principles.
He doesn’t give a shit about anyone.
He is profoundly disloyal.
He projects his every flaw on others.
He doesn’t know facts.
He doesn’t respect science.
He doesn’t get math.
He doesn’t acknowledge history.
He doesn’t even understand weather.
He wanted to buy Greenland.
He wanted to nuke hurricanes.
He says he’s a genius.
But he won’t release his grades or tax returns.
He attacks war heroes while he pardons war criminals.
He accuses others of nepotism while he privileges his own children.
He whines about criticism as he spews nothing but bile.
He calls patriots “human scum” while surrounding himself with scumbags like Roger Stone.
He claims to be alpha while he endlessly whines like [a] stuck pig.
He says he’s for America though he cozies up to despots.
He said no one has more respect for women than he does.
He said he knows more than the generals.
He suggested he has a special talent for infectious diseases.
I am angry and worried right now. As are tens of millions of Americans. I don’t know what will happen next but what I do know is this:
Donald Trump is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on America.
I don’t know if I felt any better after all those tweets. There was just too much to worry about.
Leadership matters, and a ghastly failure of leadership on the pandemic is the principal reason Americans decisively fired the last one. What a difference 50 days makes. The pace of vaccinations is accelerating every week. It’s exhilarating to see.
But we still have a ways to go. As I write this, I am texting with a friend and former colleague who has been in the hospital for four days with COVID-19. Fortunately, she is doing better and should be home soon. We are not out of the woods, but we can see a clear path.
My thoughts often go back to the wave of relief and thanks I felt after receiving my first vaccination shot 11 days ago. Because of a tiny risk of allergic reaction, once you get your jab, in whatever venue, you are required to remain there for 15 minutes before you can get home, in case you need an EpiPen.
That 15-minute period, of course, serves to protect you in case of an adverse reaction. But there is another incidental effect I think, which is this:
Once you’re jabbed, you can’t rush off to find your car or hail a cab or run home. You can’t immediately switch environments, can’t quickly leave the moment behind. You have to sit for a bit, fresh bandage on your arm. Your feelings of gratitude and relief live a bit longer. If you have faith, maybe you pray. If you’ve felt loss, maybe you think about that. Religious or not, you give thanks. You may cry. If you have a smartphone, you may send excited texts to loved ones, which is great too. I found it to be a bit of a gift, this compelled lingering. The shot itself is too quick, efficient, and painless to mark adequately what that moment means, not just for you but for everyone. It’s a thing worth dwelling on, maybe even longer than 15 minutes.
The Twitter Ploybook
By Sam Ozer-Staton
The great Twitter debate has returned to the front pages.
In recent days, two high-level Biden administration nominees have faced criticism for past tweets that congressional Republicans have characterized as overly inflammatory.
Vanita Gupta, President Biden’s nominee for Associate Attorney General (and the second-ever guest on Stay Tuned), and Colin Kahl, the nominee for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, have come under particular scrutiny.
In a 50-50 Senate, Republicans — acutely aware that just one Democratic defection could torpedo a nomination — have mounted a public pressure campaign against both nominees.
It’s a tactic that proved successful earlier this month, when Neera Tanden, the President’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, was forced to withdraw her nomination after Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and a group of moderate Republicans came out against her, citing past tweets.
Manchin once again finds himself in a position to be the arbiter of Twitter decorum. This week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reportedly called the West Virginia Senator to lobby him to confirm Kahl. Manchin insists he’s still undecided. “I’m gathering…information. I have not yet made a final decision.” However, Manchin added, “[Kahl’s] tweeting is nowhere near what Neera Tanden’s was.”
So what are the tweets in question? Republicans have focused their fire on one tweet in particular, posted in October 2019, shortly after Trump abruptly withdrew U.S. troops from Syria. Kahl criticized the Republicans who supported that decision, tweeting: “The GOP used to pride itself as a party that put values front and center in US foreign policy. Now — as they debase themselves at the alter [sic] of Trump — they are the party of ethnic cleansing.”
For his part, Kahl has apologized for his tone on social media, telling Senators in his confirmation hearing: “There were a number of positions that President Trump took that I strongly opposed. I think the language that I used in opposing those was sometimes disrespectful, and for that I apologize.”
Gupta, appearing on Tuesday in a joint confirmation hearing with Deputy Attorney General nominee (and former United Security co-host) Lisa Monaco, apologized for some of her own “harsh rhetoric.” But the campaign to stop Gupta’s nomination has focused less on one-off tweets and more on the kinds of polarizing cultural issues that have long been fertile ground for the Republican base: guns, abortion, race, and policing.
Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chided Gupta for several of her past tweets, including one calling out “racism, xenophobia and outrageous lies” at the Republican National Convention. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called her an “extreme partisan advocate” before launching into a series of questions about abortion, guns, and religious liberty. Multiple Republican Senators sought to paint Gupta as anti-police, despite the fact that myriad law enforcement groups, including the National Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association, have come out in support of her nomination.
“In their playbook, for those [who] want to attack her, it’s a way to deflect from Vanita’s incredible record,” Lena Zwarensteyn, a senior director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (where Gupta has served as president), told the Washington Post this week. “Our opponents try to say people aren’t respectable or nice enough or their tone is off, which is really a way to ‘keep them in their place.’ It’s really important to acknowledge who is being attacked and what is the motivation.”
Democrats have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of congressional Republicans’ recent obsession with mean tweets. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) remarked this week: “That kind of criticism regarding tweets from folks who didn’t say anything about the kind of lying, racist tweets out of the former president, I think, is pretty rich.”
Do you think candidates for high-level government appointments should have simply stayed off Twitter during the Trump years? Or is the campaign against Gupta evidence of the fact that politicians will seize on anything to win a political battle — and the Twitter debate is just a distraction? To what extent should off-color tweets matter in the confirmation process?
Write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts.
CAFE Live is upon us! The conversation between two of the nation’s preeminent historians, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, will take place today at 6:00 PM EST.
Following an introduction by Preet, the pair will discuss the presidential administrations that changed the course of history, and the outlook for President Biden. To sign up, head to cafe.com/live.
— Listen to Doing Justice on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. The final episode tells the story of Rais Bhuyian, the victim of a white supremacist hate crime who launched a global campaign to get his would-be-killer off death row. You can now binge the entire six-part series, which chronicles the cases that most challenged and inspired Preet during his time as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
— Listen to Stay Tuned, “Health of Nation,” where Preet interviews Atul Gawande, a surgeon, healthcare policy expert, and New Yorker staff writer. And don’t miss the bonus for Insiders, where Gawande discusses his influential 2009 article, “The Cost Conundrum,” and tells Preet about his favorite medical literature.
— Listen to Third Degree, the new podcast from Elie Honig. In the latest episode, “Picking the Chauvin Jury,” Elie breaks down the jury selection process in the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota police officer charged with killing George Floyd.
— Listen to Note from Joyce, “Stop Targeting Trans Youth.”
— Listen to CAFE Insider, “Cuomo, Chauvin & Hate Crimes,” Preet and Anne break down the impending investigation into sexual harassment allegations made against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the jury selection process in the trial of Derek Chauvin, and the alarming rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
CAFE Insiders know how Preet and Anne feel towards their shared home state of New Jersey. Luckily for all of us, the Garden State has a hilarious and insightful official Twitter account. Follow @NJGov
That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.
— Edited by Tamara Sepper
The CAFE Team:
Tamara Sepper, Adam Waller, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Jennifer Korn, David Tatasciore, Matthew Billy, and Nat Weiner.