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Opinion: Will history judge Trump as harshly as his critics on COVID-19?

Yes, Trump famously said the pandemic would soon be over. But even his foes are starting to acknowledge a few things he may have done right

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House with White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, middle, and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, listening.
President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, middle, and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, listen. History may not judge former Trump as harshly as critics did last year about his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

It’s been said that the hardest words to utter in the English language are “I am sorry,” “I need help” and “I was wrong.”

Lately, you can add to that: “Trump was right.”

Not about everything, of course, as some of his most ardent fans say on T-shirts and bumperstickers. But there is some evidence that history may not judge former President Donald Trump quite as harshly as critics did last year about his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two such admissions came from, of all places, the White House last month. First, President Joe Biden credited the former administration’s role in making vaccines available with the promised “warp speed.” It was a rare compliment offered by Biden to his predecessor, although others have said as much, including former Biden aide Andy Slavitt, who said last year, “I would absolutely tip my hat. … The Trump administration made sure that we got in record time a vaccine up and out.”

Later, Biden told governors on a conference call, “There is no federal solution (to COVID-19). This gets solved at the state level.” People on social media were quick to point out that this was basically Trump’s position. Trump told governors in April 2020 they would be “calling their own shots” on their respective states’ pandemic response.

Similarly, in 2020, Trump wanted schools to stay open, which is what Biden said Tuesday needs to happen despite some calls to temporarily return to virtual learning amid the omicron surge.

While largely critical of Trump, KFF (formerly Kaiser Family Foundation), a nonprofit that provides health policy news and analysis, credits Trump for the administration’s actions taken before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Trump established a White House COVID-19 task force on Jan. 27, 2020, and days later, declared a public health emergency and barred foreign nationals coming from China from entering the U.S. These actions, of course, stand in contrast to Trump’s cheery insistence that the virus would soon be history, but his attitude was consistent with what he later told Bob Woodward: that he’d deliberately downplayed the threat so Americans wouldn’t panic.

Few people would say that’s an effective strategy — or even an ethical one — in the face of a virus that has now killed more than 800,000 Americans. National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote that Trump’s strategy was a mistake, one that made him seem “out of touch with reality, an incredibly perilous position for a president.”

But now, looking at what COVID-19 has wrought under two presidents, Lowry is asking where’s the apology due Trump from people who blamed him for virus deaths in 2020. Lowry notes that during one of the presidential debates, Biden said, “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”

In fact, as it turned out, more Americans died of COVID-19 in 2021 than 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins University. And while this was in part because of the emergence of more contagious variants, these deaths occurred under Biden’s watch with vaccines available and no shortage of personal protective equipment like the U.S. saw in 2020.

As Lowry wrote, you can’t make an “apples-to-apples comparison” of the administrations’ COVID-19 response, as “Biden only took office in late January, and any policy changes would take time to show up in real-world results.” Also, the U.S. didn’t begin counting COVID-19 deaths until late February of 2020. And Biden has largely failed to achieve what he believes to be a key weapon in the fight: vaccination mandates.

But infectious-disease specialists told The Wall Street Journal that “public-health officials” failed to do what needed to be done this year. That’s language that wouldn’t have been afforded to Trump, who was often decried as personally responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

There’s plenty that Trump did wrong, including (and most obviously) his remarks about the coronavirus going away magically. The Washington Post, which keeps track of such things about Trump, counted 40 times that Trump said the virus would soon disappear. He also said repeatedly that it was basically the flu, despite his own experience with being sick.

But the longer the pandemic continues under the Biden administration, with attendant problems such as a shortage of tests, the more normal the Trump administration’s response looks in the face of a once-in-a-century (we hope) pandemic. Trump is no COVID hero, but history may not judge Trump quite as harshly as his critics have, at least when it comes to the pandemic. With three years left in his administration, Biden may yet become the president who got COVID-19 under control. Unfortunately for Biden and the country, he’s now the president under which the pandemic got even worse.