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The blame machine is running at full throttle

No one likes the blame game — except the blamer.

With covid-19 spiking again in the midst of massive vaccination efforts, the blame machine is running at full throttle.

During CNN’s documentary interviews with Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx recently, the two scientists pointed a finger or two at former President Donald Trump for missteps that led, in Birx’s estimation, to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of unnecessary American deaths.

Trump responded in kind, blaming Birx and Fauci for terrible ideas which, he said, he prudently ignored.

But facts are facts, and there’s no disputing that Trump’s actions and attitudes during the first and second waves of the pandemic were often driven by politics instead of medicine.

Birx pointed to the time last April when Trump tweeted, “Liberate Minnesota,” “Liberate Virginia” and “Liberate Michigan,” encouraging protesters to fight state orders in direct contradiction to what the federal government, via the coronavirus task force (namely Birx and Fauci), was recommending.

Birx was careful to avoid saying that Trump threatened her when she spoke up last fall urging rural residents to take the virus seriously. The president called her afterward to reprimand her in a conversation Birx described as “uncomfortable” and “hard to hear.”

“Uncomfortable” is an apt way to describe how Birx routinely looked during those regular White House news conferences with Trump during the pandemic’s peak. Her colorful trademark scarves were inadequate to distract from body language that conveyed disbelief if not alarm at what the president was saying. Memorably, last April, Trump suggested that injecting disinfectants into human beings might kill the virus and turned toward Birx for affirmation. “You’re going to look into that, aren’t you?” he said.

If she wasn’t suppressing a scream, I was.

Why doesn’t she say something?, I heard myself shouting at the screen.

Why, during all those months, as thousands were dying, didn’t she say, “Enough! This is ridiculous!”?

Fauci, too, conveyed a stoic’s resolve to reveal nothing of his professional or personal thoughts as Trump often rambled through the daily data. Fauci told reporters in late January that he felt liberated by Trump’s departure from the White House.

That’s nice, but shouldn’t Fauci have been more outspoken in disrupting Trump’s stream-of-consciousness mental meandering? Quitting a job to speak freely seems nobler than being trapped in the frame with a president so plainly out of his depth. Trump had special words for Fauci, too, after the CNN interview. In the documentary, Fauci described his decision to go “all out” for the vaccines as “the best decision that I’ve ever made.” Trump insisted that he was responsible for expediting development of the vaccines.

From Trump’s perspective, he saved the economy from collapse by minimizing the urgency of shutdowns; his science advisers’ view is that the shutdowns prevented out-of-control contagion and massive death. Both views have merit, but economies are more easily revived than lives lost.

Among other facts we know, thanks to Trump’s interviews with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, Trump knew in early February how deadly the virus was and that it was transmitted through the air. Fauci also must have known since he joined Trump’s coronavirus task force on Jan. 29, 2020. Yet, for weeks thereafter, the government’s best advice was “wash your hands” and “don’t touch your face.” Given the threat of a deadly airborne virus, the task force’s prescription was akin to telling children in the 1950s and 1960s to get under their desks in case of a nuclear attack.

Birx said the first 100,000 deaths were nobody’s fault because no one understood what was happening initially. After that, however, a lack of federal policy caused subsequent deaths that could have been “mitigated or substantially reduced.”

Those are strong words aimed directly at Trump. But shouldn’t Birx also accept some responsibility for minding her tongue and allowing the president’s pandemic to flourish? When does knowing better but doing nothing become tantamount to complicity?

Interviews are interesting, but carefully crafted guilt notes aren’t helpful to the challenges ahead. Blame reaps no harvest. What Americans need now is clarity and fealty to facts.

The recently proposed National Coronavirus Commission Act is an important step in that direction. Bipartisan and bicameral, the legislation would create an independent body to investigate the nation’s preparedness and response to the pandemic in the fashion of the 9/11 Commission.

What I fear they’ll find is that American lives were sacrificed to feed the appetite of an insatiable narcissist who, like the virus he minimized, cares only about self-propagation.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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