In the Broadway classic "Guys and Dolls," a gangster named Big Julie From Chicago informs participants in a crap game that they will be using dice specially made for him — with "invisible" spots. "These dice ain't got no spots on them," protests Nathan Detroit, the game organizer. "They're blank." But Big Julie, a practiced cheater as well as a thug, is ready. "I had the spots removed for luck," he replies. "But I remember where the spots formerly were. Do you doubt my memory?" "Big Julie," says Nathan with resignation, "I have great trust in you."
President Donald Trump channeled Big Julie From Chicago during his White House spin classes over the last few weeks, insisting — not for the first time — that he hadn't said things the entire world heard him say and insulting reporters who had the nerve to quote him back to him. "Don't be a cutie pie," snarled the leader of the free world at one reporter who asked him about the thousands of Americans dying each week. But he was particularly incensed at proposals that the country actually try to learn what the federal government knew about the pandemic, when we knew it, what we did about it and what we are doing.
One proposal circulating in Congress would create a National Commission on the COVID-19 Pandemic, "not just to look back at prior practices and mistakes but to learn lessons as quickly as possible to better protect the United States going forward." The bipartisan body would consist of five Republicans and five Democrats. To ensure that it would not interfere with our response or become a tool in the presidential election, its members would not even be appointed until after the inauguration, and the new president would appoint its chair. Presumably, if Trump is reelected, that would be Jared Kushner.
The commission's purpose would be to get the facts, which was generally regarded as a good thing in times past. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, then-President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a commission to investigate why we were so unprepared for it. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush approved a commission to investigate. Both presidents, one a Democrat and one a Republican, knew that these inquiries might well embarrass them. But both possessed the character and the maturity to know that finding the truth was critical to the welfare of the country they were elected to serve.
This president, however, is in what may charitably be called a league of his own, and he blasted the suggestion that we learn the truth about what happened with COVID-19, deploying his customary rubbish. "It's witch hunt after witch hunt," sniped Trump. "Everyone knows it's ridiculous." If the president has been honest with the American public, an inquiry shouldn't concern him. "Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart," he tweeted in 2018. Let's call that debatable on both counts.
If the president has been honest, he should welcome the investigation. He and his fellow geniuses would be free to blame the disastrous federal response to warnings about the pandemic, and response to the pandemic itself, on anyone they want: on the states, for foolishly supposing that the United States government would confront a global health catastrophe; on the impeachment proceedings, which the president claims distracted him; on former President Barack Obama's administration, which hadn't been in office for almost three years when the pandemic struck and which warned Trump's team about this in early 2017; or on UFOs. The idea is to have adults separating facts from falsehoods with expertise, integrity and the good of the nation in mind.
The president is unenthusiastic, and one may reasonably infer why. But we are in extremely tough shape, and this is no time for crap games or hiding spots.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.