One of the most striking things about “Nightmare Scenario,” a new book about the Trump administration’s shambolic response to Covid-19, is how the narrative seems to run on two tracks. One follows the chaotic story of the White House and the government agencies, with staffers running around, ostensibly trying to address a deadly pandemic while also trying to please President Trump; the other follows the inexorable advance of the novel coronavirus itself, as it made its way through the American population.
The authors, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, work for The Washington Post — Abutaleb is a reporter who covers health policy, and Paletta is the paper’s economics editor. “‘Nightmare Scenario’ aims to provide the first, complete narrative of what really happened inside the Trump administration between January 2020 and January 2021,” they state in a prefatory note, offering a guide to their intentions while also managing expectations. This is a book that was written with speed and diligence. Whether it will appeal to you depends on how enticed you feel by the authors’ promise to delve into “the decisions, meetings and moments that shaped one of the worst years in U.S. history” and “to document it all.”
They generally make good on that promise, thoroughly chronicling a year so full of upheaval that revisiting it now can feel like entering a fever dream. I had somehow forgotten that Trump visited India toward the end of February 2020, fumbling with a spinning wheel in the home of Mahatma Gandhi; or that he garbled a prepared speech from the Oval Office two weeks later, saying the exact opposite of what he was supposed to say and sending markets tanking.
But most of that is beside the point — or should be, though incidents like those amounted to so much of the “news” generated by a president who supplied a steady stream of unpresidential behavior. In February, when Trump heard that a number of Americans were trapped on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, he floated the idea of quarantining infected passengers at Guantánamo Bay, where terrorist suspects were being indefinitely detained. Abutaleb and Paletta say that Trump wasn’t so much concerned with protecting Americans as he was with keeping the official infection numbers down: “If they were in Gitmo, the reasoning went, they wouldn’t count.”
This turned out to be a running theme for the administration, which kept seeing the pandemic more as a matter of public relations than of public health. Instead of agonizing over the reality that propelled case counts and death rates, Trump was preoccupied with messaging, pushing everyone around him to engage in what the authors call “happy talk.” There may have been longstanding systemic issues that preceded Trump (a shrunken domestic manufacturing base led to shortages of key supplies, for one), but Abutaleb and Paletta suggest that they were made immeasurably worse by a president who either failed to grasp that the people he had sworn to serve were dying on his watch or ultimately didn’t care.
Trump’s disposition trickled down to the people who worked for him. By the time the pandemic arrived, his administration was left mostly with “a mix of family members, 20-somethings, hangers-on, fourth-stringers, former lobbyists, sycophants,” the authors write. It was an ecosystem that selected for a certain kind of temperament. Abutaleb and Paletta interviewed more than 180 people, though the number of conflicting stories they heard made them realize that some of those people were lying (or, as they diplomatically put it, “were not fully forthcoming with us,” having learned how to survive in “a White House environment where deception was a norm”).
There are scoops in this book, but for the most part they’re more like teaspoons of weak tea than substantive revelations. Dr. Anthony Fauci was so beloved by the public that some of his fellow doctors started to resent him. A plan to send a free mask to every American household was scuttled after some senior officials compared the mask to a jockstrap or a training bra, saying it looked “like you have a pair of underwear on your face.” Trump was apparently so enraged at the former national security adviser John Bolton for writing a tell-all book that at one point he said: “Hopefully Covid takes out John.”
It’s a line that sounds like a (bad) joke, but Abutaleb and Paletta depict it as an instance of Trump turning “darkly serious.” That characterization feels like an awkward stretch, and this book as a whole lacks the narrative verve of recent books by Michael Lewis or Lawrence Wright about the pandemic. Some of the scenes in “Nightmare Scenario” are drawn out to the point of dramatic exhaustion. Recounting how Trump walked slowly toward the helicopter that would fly him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after he himself was sickened by the virus in October, the authors minutely detail his lumbering path, asking, “Could the whole year have flashed before his mind’s eyes during those 51 steps?”
Who knows? (The authors say that Trump called off a long-planned interview at the last minute.) But regardless of whatever President Trump was thinking, his illness wasn’t the wake-up call that infectious disease experts hoped it would be. After receiving lifesaving experimental treatments that weren’t yet available to the public, Trump didn’t become more sympathetic to the suffering caused by the virus; instead he doubled down on his denials by essentially telling his supporters that Covid, whose death toll would reach more than 229,000 Americans by the end of the month, was no big deal.
“Nightmare Scenario” may be explicitly about Covid-19, but the authors also document another sickness, one that is endemic to the country — a chronic condition that flares up now and again, sometimes with deadly results. A crisis that might have unified a fractious nation was instead weaponized in ways that exacerbated existing divisions. Yes, against all conventional expectations, we now have vaccines sooner than almost anyone imagined — and Abutaleb and Paletta write that the Trump administration, with its fixation on silver bullets, can take some credit for that. But more than 600,000 American deaths are a grim reminder that a vaccine only works if you’re alive to take it.