David Burns: ‘J’Accuse’ the president of a failure of leadership

On Jan. 13, 1898, French writer Emile Zola published an open letter to the president of France accusing the government of anti-Semitism in the conviction of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus for passing secrets to Germany. Known to history as the Dreyfus Affair, this political scandal convulsed France for more than a decade in the lead-up to World War I.

Over time, the title of the letter, “J’Accuse!” (I accuse!), spread beyond France and came to mean a declaration of outrage and accusation against someone in power.

Every American president faces challenges, and COVID-19, a once in a century pandemic, is Donald Trump’s test of leadership. Asked at a town hall with voters on Tuesday night if he could have done more to stop the spread of the virus, Trump said, “I don’t think so.”

I disagree, Mr. President. Your handling of the pandemic has been not merely incompetent. We now know you’ve also acted with a shocking disregard for American life.


In his new book, “Rage,” Bob Woodward discloses Trump’s taped admissions that he concealed from the American public the threat posed by the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Beginning with the first reported death in February, almost 200,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19 — the most of any country. With only 4% of the world’s population, the United States accounts for nearly a quarter of the worldwide deaths from the virus. In addition to having the highest death toll, the U.S. ranks among the bottom 13 countries with the highest death rates. On average, 936 Americans die from the disease each day.

These numbers suggest tragedy, because there are solid reasons to believe many of the deaths were avoidable.

In a globalized world, the virus would have made its way to the United States. But how governments responded to the virus, especially early on, has had a huge impact on their infection rates and death tolls.

A government’s ability to effectively respond to any shock depends, in part, on crisis planning. The United States had probably done more epidemic planning than any other country before the virus struck. A 2019 study of 195 countries by Johns Hopkins University assessed the U.S. as the best-prepared country in the world for a pandemic. Credit for that state of readiness lay with the Obama administration’s preparation of a pandemic “playbook” after its successful handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Trump, however, ignored the playbook entirely. He had also weakened operational readiness when, in 2018, he disbanded the National Security Council’s directorate that would have provided expertise for and coordination of the government’s response to the pandemic.

During the early, critical weeks in February and March, Trump used the power of his office to misinform, promoting magical thinking that the virus would just disappear and fake cures like hydroxychloroquine. What was needed instead was a warlike mobilization of resources and strategies and coordination among the states.

An early consequence: According to one study in May, 36,000 lives would have been saved if the Trump administration had implemented social distancing a week earlier than it did.

By April, Trump realized that COVID-19 was immune to his science-free, reality TV show approach to governance. The deaths were not coming down. This was Trump’s moment of truth, when the nation needed its president to provide effective leadership during a time of national crisis. American lives were at stake.

But rather than step up, Trump pivoted to blaming China and effectively deserted the battlefield, leaving Americans without a leader in the fight to defeat the virus and restore the economy. He has since refused to accept any responsibility for his administration’s failures. It is as if after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans they were on their own, and states were responsible for their own defense.

Meanwhile, the U.S. death toll continues to rise. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that if the Trump administration had done even just a global average job of fighting the virus, then more than 156,000 Americans would still be alive today.

The United States is the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced country. Trump, more than anyone else, is to blame for why it also has more COVID-19 deaths than any other country.

Trump’s concealment of COVID-19′s risk wasn’t merely pernicious, it was diabolical. Woodward’s reporting shows that Trump knew specific details in early February that intentionally ignoring the science and instead downplaying the danger from COVID-19 created a risk of death for countless Americans who have in fact died from the virus.

By his own admission, he wasn’t uninformed or misinformed about the seriousness of the health risk. He simply chose to ignore it in favor of disinformation that might help his campaign for reelection.


David Burns

David Burns has degrees in history and law. He lives in Salt Lake City.