Katy Burns: Is there anyone we can believe?

  • President Donald Trump speaks to the media before boarding Air Force One for a trip to a campaign rally in Freeland, Mich., on Sept. 10 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. AP

  • In an image from video, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, known as Baghdad Bob, speaks to reporters Monday morning, April 7, 2003, in downtown Baghdad, to deny that coalition forces had advanced to the city center. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/20/2020 6:30:03 AM

As facts continued to dribble out last week, we learned that on Jan. 28 President Donald Trump was warned by his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, about a new virus which “will be the biggest national security threat that you face in your presidency.”

Yet by the time you read this – eight months later – more than 200,000 Americans will have died from an ailment that our president assured us on Feb. 27 would be gone by Easter. (“This is a flu,” he said.) And far more will be living with significant and perhaps permanent damage to their lungs and other organs from the novel coronavirus that has upended lives across the globe, perhaps none more than here in the U.S.

Until there is a vaccination for the disease, medical authorities told us, we would have to batten down our lives’ hatches. Especially if we are not young. It seems that 80% of those who die from the disease are over the age of 65.

So – like vast numbers of Americans – my husband and I pretty much put our lives on hold. We’ve perfected the art of making quick and infrequent raids on a supermarket, lists clutched in hand and masks firmly in place. We’ve grown to appreciate takeout food. Zoom and similar online group meeting services are our new best friends, or at least they bring our family and friends and occasional business associates into our house electronically.

Now it’s mid-September. The leaves are beginning to change. We’ve lined up our plowing service for the winter ahead. And the cursed pandemic is not close to being over yet.

When will it be over? When will it be safe to come out? Most important, who can we believe will tell us the truth?

Certainly not the elected president. The Washington Post has carefully tabulated Trump’s “false or misleading” statements since his inauguration, and he topped the 20,000 mark in mid-July.

Even now he is insisting – with no evidence whatsoever – that the disease is on the “downswing,” that we’re “rounding the corner” on it, that it’s now safe for Americans to return to businesses and factories, to reopen schools, to prowl around shopping malls. And he’s insisting – contrary to the country’s medical experts – that we will have a vaccine ready to inoculate all Americans by November.

Just Wednesday he took personal credit – “It’s my great honor to have helped,” he tweeted modestly – for the return of Big Ten collegiate football.

By now, he’s reminding a lot of his fellow Americans of Baghdad Bob. Remember Bob? He was the Iraqi minister of information back in 2003 and drew quite a following in this country when – in a smartly pressed uniform and jaunty black beret – he’d regularly and gamely stand before the cameras to predict American defeat even as U.S. tanks crawled along the horizon behind him.

He became so popular here that he was celebrated with T-shirts, coffee mugs, a pop song, and – the ultimate honor – a Baghdad Bob bobblehead.

At the war’s end, Bob surrendered to American forces, was interrogated and then released, presumably to live out the rest of his days in obscurity. Bob was essentially harmless.

Often Donald Trump also seems to live in an alternate universe, and there are Trump bobbleheads, too. But Trump isn’t harmless, not by a long shot. He is, after all, president of the United States. Millions of Americans – if a dwindling number almost daily – listen to him. And the same is true of the various loyalists he’s seeded through vital government departments to ensure that Trumpian values reign.

Just last week one of his fine government appointees had a public meltdown and gave us an unnerving glimpse of what seems to go on in their minds.

It seems a guy named Michael Caputo was appointed to head public affairs – the PR operation – at the Department of Health and Human Services and thus given certain authority over the CDC. He’s HHS’s top communications official.

Caputo’s qualifications? Well, none. An acolyte of Trump pal and convicted felon Roger Stone, he hasn’t a scintilla of medical training or any background in health or science but plenty of experience as a publicist for various Trump schemes (including a failed 2014 attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills) and, interestingly, for certain Russian enterprises.

No matter.

Caputo figured he knew enough about what his ultimate boss – Trump – wanted and, with the aid of an assistant, began to put his own stamp on the CDC’s core weekly bulletins – that is, to revise, delay, or even scuttle them – to fit Trump’s pandemic narrative rather than the truth.

Since nobody, but nobody, has ever before messed with the scientists’ bulletins – they are considered sacrosanct – this did not go unnoticed, and criticism of Caputo began leaking to the non-scientific world.

And suddenly everyone in town knew who Michael Caputo was because, to be blunt, he erupted. On Facebook Live. In a near half-hour diatribe, he sent out a warning that the CDC harbored a “resistance unit” determined to withhold a coronavirus vaccine to defeat Donald Trump. He believed Trump will be re-elected but that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, would refuse to concede.

“And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing.” He accused CDC scientists of “sedition” – inciting violence against lawful authority to overthrow it, an offense punishable by 20 years in prison.

According to the New York Times, he warned, with no evidence, that “there are hit squads being trained all over this country” to oppose a second Trump term. “You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going. . . .

“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

Following the Times story, Caputo deleted his Facebook account, although not before boasting that the president had put him in charge of a $250 million advertising campaign meant to help the U.S to return to normal – whatever that is.

For good measure, he also deleted a Twitter account in which he’d suggested gassing all journalists. That one, by the way, was dug up by Fox News.

By midweek, his department said Caputo had taken a two-month leave from his job “to focus on himself and his family,” but only after he warned, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Think of a thousand or so Michael Caputos, stashed throughout the nooks and crannies of the federal government, just waiting to serve our current president’s whims and fantasies.

It is probably not insignificant that, in the midst of all this, Scientific American, the country’s oldest continuously published monthly magazine, broke 175 years of apolitical tradition and, for the first time, endorsed a candidate for president. It was not Donald Trump.

And we’re still trying to figure out who – in our whole national government – can tell us when it’s safe to go back out. I suspect Tony Fauci already has his hands full.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)  




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