Now We Know What the President Knew

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Is anything not in flames right now?

I spent much of Wednesday scrolling through the apocalyptic photos coming out of the West Coast. Instagram shots of friends’ homes backlit by orange darkness, video of others driving across the Golden Gate Bridge under eerie orange skies. The images were surreal.

Meanwhile, in Washington, another unsettling fire burned.

A bombshell report from a new book by Bob Woodward provided evidence backing up earlier reporting: that the president knowingly downplayed the “deadly stuff” of the coronavirus for months. Mr. Trump’s own words and Mr. Woodward’s reporting show that the president misled the public about the scale of the threat as he pressured governors to keep their states open and stoked protests against their restrictions.

After four years, it’s easy to be inured to the chaos coming from the White House. This week alone, the president described his military leaders as war profiteers and claimed, yet again, that “Anarchists, Agitators, Looters” were on the verge of invading the suburbs.

But the comments that Mr. Woodward reports, as Joe Biden and other Democrats have noted with outrage, stand out. More than 191,000 Americans have died of a virus the president admits he knew was deadly. While the exact estimates vary, multiple studies have found that taking protective measures earlier would have saved tens of thousands of lives.

In different times, Mr. Trump’s admission would have prompted an investigation — what did the president know, and when did he know it? — and maybe even calls for his resignation.

Now, no one expects any serious response from Washington. After failing to remove Mr. Trump last winter, Democrats are focused on electoral victories in November. Republicans generally save their critiques for anonymous media reports or to be monetized in best-selling books, as they attempt to rehabilitate their image after Mr. Trump turns out to be the kind of leader in private that his comments reveal in public.

In an interview on Fox News Wednesday, Mr. Trump said he misled Americans because he didn’t want to “create panic” — a concern he doesn’t seem to have about his baseless warnings of suburban anarchy, or his years of speeches and ads depicting scenes of violence, disaster and economic carnage perpetrated by his Democratic enemies.

If anyone still believes the president and his allies are playing some kind of 3-D political chess where every move is plotted, the publication of this book should finally put that idea to rest. Sure, no president can resist the lure of the legendary Mr. Woodward. But past administrations heavily managed their interactions with him, knowing his track record for unflattering portrayals. Certainly, they didn’t free associate in recorded late-night chat sessions.

Yet, even Mr. Woodward doesn’t escape this political moment unscathed.

The renowned journalist is a totem of the Washington establishment. He believes in the lofty ideals of the post-Watergate era that his most famous reporting helped usher into our politics. Like character. And leadership. And ethics.

That is neither this time nor this president. The debate surrounding whether Mr. Woodward should have disclosed Mr. Trump’s admissions earlier, given the pain of the virus and the erratic nature of the president he was covering, is valid.

But Mr. Woodward must grapple with larger questions about his worldview, as well.

As my Times colleague Jennifer Szalai wrote in her review of the book, the 77-year-old reporter is rooted in an “old-school establishment” that asks of the president “windy, high-minded questions like ‘What are your priorities?’” as they flatter those around him for information.

When everything is burning, perhaps the questions need to be more basic. Is it wrong to withhold information as hundreds of thousands of Americans die? And what responsibility for those deaths is borne by those who enable Mr. Trump’s behavior?

We don’t know how or when this fire will burn out. Or whether anything resembling Mr. Woodward’s Washington will be left in the ashes.

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What is going on with QAnon, the false conspiracy theory that appears to be taking hold among some of President Trump’s most devoted followers?

In a Times Op-Ed, the researcher Annie Kelly analyzes how QAnon spreads and why it is finding an audience with so many women. Ms. Kelly reports that among the female adherents she interviewed at a QAnon rally, “many talked about how they had come out of a sense of maternal duty to protect the innocent.” That corresponds to a founding tenet of the conspiracy theory, that there’s a “cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.”

“President Trump has flirted with the convoluted QAnon conspiracy theory for months,” writes Geoffrey Kabaservice in another Times Op-Ed. “Over 70 QAnon supporters have run for Congress as Republicans this year,” Mr. Kabaservice notes, and Mr. Trump and some in the House Republican Conference have embraced the theory’s adherents.

Times columnist Jamelle Bouie points out that one QAnon adherent, Marjorie Taylor Greene, “won 57 percent of the vote in the August runoff election for Georgia’s heavily Republican 14th Congressional District.” That means she’ll almost certainly win the general election.

Mr. Kabaservice argues that the threat posed to the Republican Party by QAnon followers is akin to the threat it faced in the late 1950s and ’60s from the John Birch Society. Influential party leaders need to forcefully eject QAnon and its followers from the party, as they had with the Birchers, he says, but “today there are no gatekeepers of similar stature on the political right.”

Ms. Kelly adds that “Our answer must be a balance of empathy for those who have been drawn in by QAnon’s seductive message, coupled with a firm rejection of its lies.”

— Adam Rubenstein

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