It is a sad commentary that when people heard the news that the President was ill, the first thought in many minds was not concern for his welfare or what might be the impact on our country, but rather whether the news was true. This is not surprising since, in the last four years, the President himself has been responsible for over 20,000 false or misleading statements while frequently accusing mainstream media of being Fake News. There is, however, a cost of lies, and when they come from our nation’s leader, that cost is a significant threat to our health, economy, security, and democracy. We are retired Admirals and Generals of the U.S. uniformed services, who served as Physician, Nurse or Medical Scientist practitioners and administrators. We are members of the National Security Leaders for Biden-Harris. <www.nationalsecurityleaders4biden.com>
Great leaders recognize the importance of truth. The ability of a Roosevelt, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, or a Churchill, during the London Blitz, to unify and motivate their nations was in part by sharing the hard truth. They explained what they knew, what they were doing, and what they were asking their citizens to do. Both Roosevelt and Churchill had respect for, and faith in, their citizens. They did not play down the seriousness of the situations. With a clear knowledge of the truth, their countrymen committed to the sacrifices that were ahead and were resilient when the news was bad and the future was uncertain. Truth helped establish trust and trust helped build resilience. In contrast to the governments of Roosevelt and Churchill, speaking truth has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration and the lies have had significant costs.
The Trump administration’s consistent misinformation and false statements concerning the current COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our nation’s health. We now know that the President was fully aware as early as January 2020 that this virus was a serious threat. Yet he repeatedly and consistently downplayed the threat and silenced his own government’s public health experts. With his false statements, his efforts to influence CDC recommendations and FDA approvals, his push of ineffective and dangerous treatments, and his risky personal behaviors, he chose to make the pandemic a political issue and to undermine effective prevention strategies. In the absence of effective treatments or vaccines the only means to contain the virus is when citizens understand, support, and follow behaviors to prevent transmission. Once prevention strategies such as masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded high-risk environments became political, we were on course to a severe and prolonged recession, more than 7.5 million infections, and 225,000+ deaths. Much of this impact was preventable with effective leadership. Many of us had hoped that the White House outbreak and the President’s personal experiences with the virus might change his behaviors and misleading statements. But we were greatly disappointed when the President, while recovering and still likely contagious, removed his mask and told the public not to fear the virus and to get “out there.” It is impossible to imagine Churchill advising the people of London to open their blackout curtains and not fear the Nazi bombs.
It appears that, as future waves of disease affect state after state, and severe disease continues to disproportionately affect seniors and minorities, the impact of the pandemic will be much greater than it would be if we had an administration that told our citizens the truth and encouraged behaviors which would limit transmission. Defeating the virus will require greater public acceptance of prevention behaviors and eventual development and use of effective treatments and vaccines. The benefit of any future vaccine will depend on it being accepted by a public that trusts that the vaccine is safe and effective. The Trump administration’s lies about the pandemic have eroded the trust and resilience that will be needed to address the long-term challenges from this pandemic.
And, there have also been other lies about overturning and replacing The Affordable Care Act, changing the regulation of environmental hazards, issues about climate change; lies about our military and national security personnel, our allies and adversaries, and “very fine people on both sides” pose short and long-term threats to our personal and national security.
Lies and misinformation are prominent features of authoritarian governments and are a great risk to our cherished democracy. Lies erode the trust and resilience that is necessary for our democratic institutions and processes to be effective. The American people deserve to know the truth about important issues. There will, however, be future pandemics and other serious crises. America needs a President who understands and respects the American people enough to know they deserve to hear the truth.
The American people deserve a President whom they can trust.
Lieutenant General (Ret) Charles Roadman, Former Surgeon General — USAF; Major General (Ret) Gale Pollock, Former Acting Surgeon General — USA; Rear Admiral (Ret) Mitchell Cohen, Former Assistant Surgeon General — USPHS, Former Director. CDC Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases — USDHHS; Brigadier General (Ret) Stephen Xenakis, Former Commanding Officer, Eisenhower Army Medical Center — USA