Donald Trump couldn’t sleep.
It was afternoon in Washington when Larry Kudlow’s cell phone buzzed; it was the middle of the night where the call was coming from. But that didn’t matter to Kudlow, a former CNBC presence now working as a White House economic adviser, for this wasn’t the first call he’d received from the same man halfway around the globe.
The sun would not rise for several hours in India, but President Trump hadn’t slept, pacing in his palatial New Delhi hotel suite. He was battling some jet lag, to be sure, but he wasn’t awake because of that, or because he was still charged up from the 110,000-person rally he had held at the world’s largest cricket stadium or the majestic tour he had received of the Taj Mahal.
The president didn’t know it yet, but he was embarking on one of the most consequential weeks of his term. At the beginning of the week, he had believed that he would be running for reelection on the back of a strong economy while facing socialist Bernie Sanders. By the end of that week, neither was true.
In the months to come, it would become clear that for the first time in his political life, Trump’s lies weren’t going to save him. And it just so happened to be in an election year.
Trump’s whirlwind trip to India in the final days of February 2020 was meant to be pure celebration. Short on policy but long on pageantry, the president was to be feted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose rule had tilted to the right, leading to open discrimination and violence against the nation’s Muslim minority.
The spectacles were as massive as expected, fit for a president whose demands were always for things to be bigger and better. But, upon reflection, a small, unassuming event tucked into the presidential schedule carried by far the greatest import.
The event was a quick talk to business leaders, held at the US ambassador’s residence in New Delhi and slated for just a few minutes. But this was where Trump felt compelled to address the coronavirus, which had begun rattling the foundation of his argument for another four years in office: the economy.
“We lost almost a thousand points yesterday on the market, and that’s something,” Trump told the two dozen or so gathered. “Things like that happen where — and you have it in your business all the time — it had nothing to do with you; it’s an outside source that nobody would have ever predicted.”
The virus was “a problem that’s going to go away,” he said with bravado. “And I think I can speak for our country, for — our country is under control.”
But his public confidence was undermined by his private worry. Trump had been up the night before, repeatedly calling Kudlow and other economic advisers. He asked Kudlow what he had heard, what the titans of business were saying, and if he would go on cable TV — always the most important part of a Trump public relations overture — to defend the president’s precious economy. Trump was nervous about the first significant stock market slide caused by COVID-19, the mysterious new virus that had stealthily emerged in China some weeks prior and was beginning to race around the globe. There was suddenly talk of lockdowns, travel bans and mass death, and the stock market — so bullish for most of the Trump era, it had become an idealized symbol in his mind for economic prosperity — was shaken.
Trump had known for a while that COVID-19 was poised to spark a pandemic unlike the globe had seen in a hundred years. After he and other top aides, among them Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, initially downplayed warnings coming from elsewhere in the administration — including from national security aide Matt Pottinger and trade adviser Peter Navarro — the president had grown convinced of the danger posed by what he often dubbed “the plague.” He confided in the journalist Bob Woodward as far back as February 7 that he knew the virus was deadly.
But publicly, Trump lied.
He lied at the gathering of the world’s elite in Davos, Switzerland on January 22, saying, “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” He lied days later in Michigan, declaring that “everything’s going to be great” and falsely claiming, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” He later said the virus was going to have “a very good ending for it.” And with an eye toward Wall Street, he lied to the entrepreneurs in India, declaring “as far as what we’re doing with the new virus, I think that we’re doing a great job.”
But the markets fell again that day Trump spoke in New Delhi, creating their biggest two-day slide in four years, and things were about to get worse. None of Trump’s magic words would prevent the Dow from losing 37 percent of its value from February to March, shocking the market when it dropped almost 3,000 points on March 16 — its worst single-day plummet in history.
Those final days of February 2020 set the tone for the rest of Trump’s terrible year. Joe Biden’s turnaround on Super Tuesday in early March robbed him of his socialist foil, Bernie Sanders. Days later, Trump’s shaky Oval Office address on the coronavirus did little to reassure a jittery nation. His blustery social media posts didn’t move the needle either — the virus, after all, didn’t have a Twitter account. And in the coming months, the racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd would underscore just how out of touch Trump was with Black Americans.
Over the summer, the president who had equivocated about the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., found himself in a bunker under the executive mansion when a small fire ignited at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church during protests in Lafayette Park. When the bunker move leaked to the press, Trump exploded with anger for fear that it made him look weak. He horrified much of the nation by using the military and federal police to clear nonviolent demonstrators from the park, posing for an awkward photo-op in front of the damaged church, bible in hand.
By October, Trump’s lies about COVID caught up with him when he was hospitalized, ill with a potentially deadly disease after nearly a year of flouting the rules, believing that wearing a mask would, as he told aides, make him look like “a pussy.”
After he was discharged from Walter Reed, and with the lighting just so, Trump strode up the steps to the Truman Balcony. Though still highly contagious, he tore off his mask before stepping inside. Reporters on the lawn, though, noticed something odd: Trump immediately backtracked out to the balcony again before returning inside, as if recreating his entrance. And that’s what he did: He was using the moment to film a video marking his so-called triumph over COVID.
“Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump said.
Trump, though having required emergency hospitalization, was once more downplaying the virus. More than 200,000 Americans already had died. And as much as the president was trying to project strength, to convey the impression that he was impervious and could bully and trick his latest and greatest foe into submission, a careful watch of the video depicting him ripping the mask from his face showed a different story.
Trump was gasping for air.
Trump couldn’t have known just what lay ahead of him that February in India. When he boarded Air Force One well after sundown, he was in a rage about the virus and his inability to slow the market tumble, according to officials. He barely slept on the plane as it hurtled back to Washington overnight, landing early in the morning of February 26 after more than a dozen hours in the air, creating the effect of one endless day. He quickly tore into aides about Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who had just publicly predicted that the virus’s impact would be severe.
The virus was on the nation’s doorstep, poised to alter the very norms of society. Trump would respond to the greatest challenge of his presidency like he had to so many previous tests: with lie after lie after lie. In the end, he was buried under them and lost a reelection bid, an outcome that seemed so unlikely that week in February in India.
But the lies lived on. And amplified by fellow Republicans and the conservative media, those lies fueled the violence of January 6 — and will shape the nation’s politics for years to come.
Excerpted from The Big Lie. Copyright © 2022 by Jonathan Lemire. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.
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