One of the most striking things about Nightmare Scenario, a new book about the Trump administration’s chaotic response to Covid-19, is how the narrative appears to be two-way. One follows the chaotic history of the White House and government agencies, with staff running around allegedly trying to fight a deadly pandemic while trying to please President Trump; the other follows the inexorable advance of the novel coronavirus itself, which made its way through the American population.
The writers, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, work for the Washington Post – Abutaleb is a health policy reporter and Paletta is the newspaper’s business editor. “The Nightmare Scenario aims to provide the first, full account of what really happened within the Trump administration between January 2020 and January 2021,” reads an opening note that offers a guide to its intentions and at the same time managed expectations. This is a book that was written with speed and care. Whether or not it appeals to you depends on how enticed you are by the authors’ promise to “delve deeper into the decisions, meetings, and moments that marked one of the worst years in US history” and “document it all.”
In general, they keep this promise and record a year full of upheavals that revisiting it now can feel like a feverish dream. Somehow I forgot that Trump was visiting India in late February 2020 and fiddling with a spinning wheel in Mahatma Gandhi’s house; or that two weeks later he mutilated a prepared Oval Office speech, said the exact opposite of what he was supposed to say, and fueled the markets.
But most of it doesn’t matter – or should be, though incidents like this made up a large part of the “news” generated by a president who delivered a steady stream of non-presidential behavior. When Trump heard in February that a number of Americans were trapped on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, he launched the idea of quarantining infected passengers in Guantánamo Bay, where terrorist suspects have been held indefinitely. Abutaleb and Paletta say that Trump wasn’t so much interested in protecting Americans as in keeping official infection numbers low: “If they were in Gitmo, they said they wouldn’t count.”
This turned out to be an ongoing issue for the administration, which has increasingly viewed the pandemic as a public relations issue rather than public health. Rather than tormenting himself over the reality that was driving the number of cases and the death rate, Trump was busy with the news, urging everyone around him to join in what the authors call “happy talk.” There may have long been systemic problems that preceded Trump (a shrinking domestic manufacturing base, for example, resulted in a shortage of critical supplies), but Abutaleb and Paletta suggest they were created by a president who either didn’t understand that the people who had sworn to serve, died on his watch, or ultimately did not care.
Trump’s disposition seeped through to the people who worked for him. When the pandemic hit, his government consisted mostly of “a mix of family members, 20-year-olds, fellow travelers, fourth-stringers, ex-lobbyists and crawlers,” the authors write. It was an ecosystem that selected for a certain kind of temperament. Abutaleb and Paletta interviewed more than 180 people, although from the many conflicting stories they heard they indicated that some of these people were lying (or, as they diplomatically put it, “not entirely accommodating to us” because they had learned) to survive in “a White House setting where deception was the norm”).
There are scoops in this book, but for the most part they are teaspoons of weak tea rather than substantial revelations. Dr. Anthony Fauci was so popular with the public that some of his colleagues began to piss him off. A plan to send a free mask to every American household was thwarted after some senior officials compared the mask to a jockstrap or training bra and said it looked “like you had a pair of underwear on your face.” Trump was apparently so angry with former National Security Advisor John Bolton that he wrote a treasonous book that at one point he said, “Hopefully Covid will get John out.”
It’s a line that sounds like a (bad) joke, but Abutaleb and Paletta describe it as a case where Trump gets “darkly serious”. That characterization feels like an awkward stretch, and this book as a whole lacks the narrative oomph of Michael Lewis or Lawrence Wright’s recent books on the pandemic. Some scenes in “Nightmare Scenario” drag on to dramatic exhaustion. The authors recount how Trump slowly walked towards the helicopter that was supposed to fly him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after he became ill with the virus in October, and detailed his cumbersome path, asking, “Could be all year before flashed his mind? Eyes during these 51 steps? “
Who knows? (The authors say Trump canceled a long-scheduled interview at the last minute.) But no matter what President Trump thought, his illness wasn’t the wake-up call infectious disease experts were hoping for. After receiving life-saving experimental treatments that were not yet available to the public, Trump was no longer aware of the suffering caused by the virus; Instead, he doubled his denials by essentially telling his supporters that Covid, whose death toll would hit more than 229,000 Americans by the end of the month, wasn’t a big deal.
“Nightmare Scenario” may refer to Covid-19 explicitly, but the authors also document another disease that is endemic to the country – a chronic condition that flares up every now and then, sometimes with fatal consequences. A crisis that could have united a divided nation was instead armed in ways that exacerbated existing divisions. Yes, contrary to all conventional expectations, we now have vaccines earlier than almost anyone could imagine – and Abutaleb and Paletta write that the Trump administration can take some credit for its fixation on silver bullets. But more than 600,000 American deaths are a dire reminder that a vaccine only works if you are alive to take it.