PALM BEACH, Fla. — Orlando businessman Eric Holm remembers President Donald Trump signaling to business owners at a roundtable March 9 that the coronavirus epidemic meant tough times ahead.
“We sat next to him for 40 minutes,” said Holm, whose company, Metro Corral Partners, owns dozens of Golden Corral franchises in Florida and Atlanta. “He said it was going to be bad. But nobody knew it was the worst kind of bad.”
Nobody except maybe Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, who revealed in his book, Rage, that Trump told him in early February that the pandemic indeed would be the worst kind of bad. Rather than being straight and honest with the American public, the book documents — on the record — how Trump’s decision to “downplay” the virus resulted in a “monumental, catastrophic leadership failure,” according to Woodward.
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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has dinner with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Saturday night, March 7, 2020.
“Historians are going to be writing about the lost month of February for tens of years,” Woodward said in an interview this week.
If that is the case, then Trump’s visit to Florida in early March, his last to Palm Beach, was the “lost weekend.” If there had been a last chance moment for the president to warn and mobilize America ahead of the virus, it was that weekend.
Trump’s visit to Florida came on the heels of a high-profile visit to the country’s top infectious disease center. And it took place less than a week before COVID-19 was declared a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
Instead, the scene at Mar-a-Lago that weekend was nothing short of a celebration of denial in the face of the impending health and economic “Pearl Harbor.” The weekend was marked by political fundraisers and parties and bragging by Trump that he would continue filling stadiums for political rallies.
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And it was all punctuated by a damning March 9 tweet Trump fired off as he departed his treasured Palm Beach club for the business meeting with Holm and others in Central Florida: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
Six months later, the pandemic has left millions jobless, and close to 200,000 Americans dead. In Trump’s home county, where he owns Mar-a-Lago and two golf clubs, the toll is more than 1,200 souls lost and 44,000-plus infections.
As well as profound grief, trauma and resentment.
“Earlier on, had we just had better leadership we could have responded to this much better than we did,” said Dr. Dr. Kitonga P. Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist in Boynton Beach. “It has been very difficult for all of us … to deal with this knowing we could have made a bigger difference sooner had we acted sooner, had we responded, had we at least admitted what we don’t know so we can go ahead and work on what we do know. And, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. And here we are today.”
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Weekend at Trump’s
The president arrived at Palm Beach International Airport on a Friday evening straight from Atlanta, where he had toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters.
There, the president led CDC and administration officials in a wide-ranging discussion on flu death rates, scientific research to decipher COVID-19, travel restrictions on people coming from China and hand-shaking. And he insisted — falsely — that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
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The president also boasted that he had impressed the doctors and scientists at the world-class lab. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” Trump said.
Then, after reassuring the U.S. had “the greatest people in the world addressing coronavirus, he offered this advice: “Be calm.”
At Mar-a-Lago, stay calm quickly gave way to party on.
The president attended two fundraisers that weekend at the Southern White House that drew an estimated 1,000 non-socially distanced donors and generated a reported $14.1 million. On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence gathered cruise line industry and local officials at Port Everglades where he assured “healthy” Americans it was safe to board cruise ships and pass through turnstiles at theme parks.
“Whether it be Disney World, whether it be other destinations, whether it be cruise ships … Americans can confidently travel in this country, confidently enjoy all the benefits of this country,” the vice president asserted without a hint of doubt or second-guessing.
That Saturday evening, Trump hosted a dinner for his Brazilian counterpart. Later, standing next to President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump reiterated that, on coronavirus, there was nothing to see here.
“We’re doing very well and we’ve done a fantastic job with respect to that subject,” Trump said.
On Sunday, the Trumps celebrated the 51st birthday of the national chairwoman of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, Kimberly Guilfoyle, also Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend. “It was glorious,” said a Mar-a-Lago member who attended the festivities. “There was nothing stopping us from four more years.”
The optimism was echoed by MAGA nation sentinels manning the motorcade route along Southern Boulevard that weekend.
“I’m sure that they can come up with some kind of injection,” said Trump supporter Anne Deluca, 75, of West Palm Beach. “They can come up with something that will help us avoid this before it spreads to a crazy thing where everyone is just panicked.”
The panic would hit days later.
‘Off the cliff’
On March 11, world health officials determined COVID-19 was a pandemic and the repercussions were immediate. Cruise ships were docked, theme parks closed and the United States went into a general business lockdown. Paper products disappeared from store shelves and supermarkets began limiting sales of meat products.
Then coronavirus cases spiked by the millions, deaths by the tens of thousands soon followed within months.
The speed with which it all happened belied the president’s “be calm” message and the vice president’s apparent blind faith to travel “confidently.”
Democrats, who have castigated the Trump administration’s inept pandemic effort, offered scorching criticism after the release of the Woodward book’s findings. They say all the evidence, including documents, the president’s own statements and Woodward’s audio recordings, point to a “national tragedy” and blame Trump’s deliberate concealment and negligence.
“Trump told us in his own words that he did not tell us the truth, that he was fully aware of the catastrophic nature of COVID, that it was airborne, that it would damage old and young,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, who represents the district that is home to Mar-a-Lago. “But he left our entire country exposed and unprepared.”
“The president should have warned the entire country,” not just his newly adopted home county, County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said. For McKinlay, the pandemic turned personal this week when she revealed her 19-year-old daughter, a student at the University of Central Florida, tested positive for the virus and was in the hospital.
“When she texts me that she’s scared, I don’t want any other mother to ever have to get that text message and feel the way I feel right now,” McKinlay said during a county commission meeting on Tuesday.
And she fired a broadside at “underground media reports or anything from quack-denier doctors that this is a virus that should not be taken seriously.”
For Republicans, the revelations in the Woodward book amounted to more, as Gov. Ron DeSantis put it, “some say this, say that.”
Last week, DeSantis defended the administration and blamed what he said were conflicting messages from public health authorities late last winter.
“There was a lot of uncertainty in those early days,” the governor said. “We had people in the second week of March saying it’s OK to go on cruises, just make sure you sneeze into your elbow.”
He added there was no deception. “No one ever told me we’re going to say this but this is really the case,” DeSantis said. “There’s been a lot of some say this, say that.”
Holm, the entrepreneur who sat next to Trump at the roundtable, said the miscalculation on the spread of the virus came down to speed, not scope.
“We saw it,” Holm said. “The entire hospitality industry saw it. But all of a sudden everything went off the cliff.”
‘Hidden from the American people’
Inger Harvey, a Pahokee resident, said she painfully knows the deep and tragic cost of months of COVID denials and false assertions that the virus was “no different from the flu.”
She has lost five of family members to the pandemic this summer, including her grandmother, within a span of two months.
“Dowplaying really impacted the way I myself started initially to approach this pandemic,” Harvey said.
As those around her got ill, Harvey said she grew skeptical of what she was hearing from the president and the Trump administration. She said she decided to do her own “reading for myself” on what medical professionals were saying.
“I had to go and find it and look for it,” Harvey said this week during a virtual roundtable hosted by the Biden campaign. “It was almost as if it was being hidden from the American people to keep us from being informed about what we needed to be doing individually and as a country to protect our families.”
She said the biggest violation of trust, however, is the lack of confidence by the Trump White House in that American communities could be told the full truth and entrusted to act resolutely and courageously.
“Communities like the one I grew up in can handle the tough situations,” Harvey said. “They’ve proven it by working in the fields for many years. But the lack of information and honest responses when there was time for us to be on the front end of this pandemic placed all of us, including my family, and many, many more, on the tail end of now having to bury family members.”
Kiminyo, the infectious disease doctor who also spoke at the Zoom town hall, agreed.
“At the end of the day, six months later, the worst experience I must say during this whole pandemic… was knowing that people died,” he said. “And people died alone, without family.”
The trauma of seeing unimaginable death and suffering led him to speak up in the political arena.
“I’m just an infectious disease doctor,” said Kiminyo, who has been a physician for 18 years and whose practice works with five hospital networks. “But after the last six months you realize that you need to speak up and be an advocate.”
He said he’s seen his share of COVID deaths in Palm Beach County. And like other health professionals who have witnessed the worst intensive care unit scenes, he has been “traumatized” by it.
“Until you see someone suffocate to death in a hospital bed you don’t get it,” he said.
Reporting by Palm Beach Post reporters Hannah Morse and Wendy Rhodes was used in this story.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Trump and coronavirus: Florida weekend was last before pandemic hit