The Duty to Save Lives

The Person of the Week 🏆 and the Lingering Grim Specter

It’s been quite a week for anyone who cares about saving lives and beating back this deadly virus. The passage of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, including $14 billion for vaccine distribution. A single day when a record 2.9 million vaccines were put in arms. A partnership formed between rivals Johnson & Johnson and Merck to produce 100 million doses by May. A total now of over 64 million Americans getting at least one dose, soon to significantly exceed the promise of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days.

It’s a reason to celebrate—and to cite President Joe Biden as the Person of the Week for the singular focus that reminds us of the power of good governance, the necessity of competence and compassion, and the potential of good people to make things better. Yes, as the last years painfully demonstrated, empathy matters.

But we are still a long way from full-throated celebration, and not only because the pandemic is still a clear and present danger; the grim specter of the former guy still hangs over the body politic, still defines the context in which Biden’s success and any celebration must be viewed. 

I thought about skipping over this context for this discussion. (See the conversation on Twitter that convinced me otherwise.) Honestly, I look forward to when we can move on—when that seems the right thing to do.

But we’re not there yet. Not until we grapple with what was done. Not until justice is served. Goodness knows, that will take a while, and require more than any one post can accomplish. 

But allow me to make a start. To give a dose of the reality that, while not a vaccination, may help move toward inoculation. Let’s remember so we can fix it. So it doesn’t happen again. Let’s at least try. 

He stood on the White House lawn as Marine One waited, squeezed up to microphones and cameras in the West Wing, in too-crowded press briefings, at the edge of the Rose Garden, and he lied. And lied. And lied some more. 

He said the coronavirus would disappear—“it’s like a miracle.” He said the pandemic is “going to fade away.” He called doubts a Democratic hoax. He blamed the Chinese, to give his base an enemy to feed on. (And, oh, they did find a scapegoat: See the rise in Asian-American hate crimes.) 

He lied that “99 percent” of COVID cases are “totally harmless.” He claimed anyone could get a “perfect” COVID test, even when most of us could not. He ignored the scientists and humiliated the country with insane talk about injecting bleach and treating coronavirus with UV rays and hydroxychloroquine.

He knew the virus is a killer—he told Bob Woodward in February that it is an airborne disease, “deadly stuff,” and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” Yet he refused to tell the American people the truth. To give us the knowledge to make smart, informed decisions.

He chose to use this deadly virus not to bring Americans together in shared purpose in a grave moment—think of Pearl Harbor, think of 9/11—but to pit Americans against Americans.

He knew the virus is highly contagious and spreads in the air, yet he mocked the use of masks, as if they were not manly, as if scientific reality did not matter, as if they were little more than a political statement. Not wearing a mask became comparable to wearing his bloody red MAGA hat, a bow down to the leader, a dare to the enemy, just another way to own the libs, death counts be damned.

In what was a national problem, indeed a global problem, not limited by borders, he turned over the problem to states, pitting governors against governors trying desperately to acquire PPE for their states. When governors came calling for help, he prioritized his political friends, because even a deadly pandemic is reason to feed a bottomless ego that prizes slavish devotion above all else. And when the World Health Organization officially called it a global pandemic, exactly one year ago yesterday, he pulled the US out of that international body.

And then, as the conditions worsened, rather than pulling back, masking up, modeling behavior that would save lives, he began holding rallies again—contagious super-spreader events in which his cultists reveled in their mask-free freedom. Talk of a death cult no longer sounded hyperbolic.

At the beginning, his failures could reasonably be chalked up to the usual mix of laziness, incompetence and indifference, his usual display of callousness, cruelty and moral depravity.

But as the death count rose, the body bags piled up and the human suffering of both the hospitalized and the survivors mounted. The continuing refusal to put in place a national strategy that would confront the horror began to look far darker—a sadistically conscious and reckless, indeed criminally homicidal, effort to let people die. And when it became clearer the death count was disproportionately people of color, and the most vulnerable among us, this line of thinking became more unavoidable.

The notion that this was more than abject failure but a conscious effort is tough to engage. It goes against the most fundamental expectations that we humans should have for our fellow humans. But if there’s anything that I learned during the Trump years it’s this: Whatever might be your darkest thoughts about what drives this man, it’s likely worse than that.

Which brings me to the question, when we know that the most basic duty was to do everything possible to save lives and the opposite happened, how can this man be held accountable? Can his conscious intent be proven? Can he be held criminally liable? And will he?

I sought out the input of Glenn Kirschner, the sharp-eyed former federal prosecutor, to revisit these questions, especially now that we have a new Attorney General with the power to investigate and prosecute Trump—and not just in the case of the insurrection. This is what Glenn, who was the Chief of the Homicide Section in the US Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, told me this week:

Trump is responsible for, at a minimum, a low degree of homicide. Some jurisdictions call it involuntary manslaughter, some call it negligent homicide, some call it criminally reckless homicide. In DC for example, he is criminally liable for preventable COVID deaths under the involuntary manslaughter statute. This requires a showing that he 1. engaged in grossly negligent conduct OR had a duty to act and his failure to act was a product of gross negligence (his conduct qualifies under both theories of liability), and 2. his grossly negligent conduct was reasonably likely to result in death or serious bodily injury to another and he thereby 3. caused the death of another.

One other consideration: once the Woodward recordings were revealed and we learned Trump intentionally lied to us about the ease of transmission and how it was “far deadlier than even your aggressive flus” yet he “downplayed it” and even mocked people for wearing masks, this arguably elevated his criminal liability to second degree-depraved heart murder. However, I would not seek to indict him on the greater degree of homicide as it’s unnecessary when he could be held accountable for thousands of counts of manslaughter.

This of course begs the question of whether he will be charged. Here’s what Glenn had to say: “I think Garland will explore homicide liability, but I also expect states to seriously consider charging Trump and company for preventable COVID deaths. Once the first state indicts Trump (NY? GA?), I suspect it will open the floodgates.”

In his first Presidential address Thursday night, President Biden described the last 12 months as “a year filled with a loss of life and a loss of living.” He noted that 527,726 Americans have died from this dreaded virus—more than the number who died in WWI, WWII, Vietnam and 9/11 combined.

He promised that every adult in America, 18 and over, would be eligible to get the vaccine by May, surely encouraging families who have wondered when or if their time would come. While we continue to wonder how the deadly failures of the last year will be adjudicated, President Biden—who’s had quite a week—deserves the last word. It’s a welcome summing up.

“We know what we need to do to beat this virus,” he said. “Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most basic function: Protecting the American people.”

My expectation? Better days ahead.