The President and the pandemic: two months of dithering, deceit and distortion

By | March 24, 2020

On January 22, 2020, President Donald Trump told the American public: “We have it totally under control.”  No, we didn’t. We don’t. And no one can say how or when we will.

I have compiled a roundup of Trump’s distortions, evasions, and lies on the coronavirus outbreak as documented by more than 20 diligent news organizations in news analyses and op-eds. Taken together, they present an opportunity to reflect on the role of a President, the responsibility of a President, and the responsibility of an Administration staff, Cabinet and Congress in the face of a pandemic.

I present this remarkable collection with a deep sense of humility and gravity. As someone who has covered health care news for 46 years and has published a website that many have turned to for trustworthy health care information over the past 14 years, I feel compelled to sound an alarm about what I’ve witnessed in the last two months. I am concerned that we are already numb to the massive misinformation on COVID-19 that has been dumped on us. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. As a nation, we cannot afford to forget or repeat the miscommunication of the past two months.

The collection is long, but not exhaustive. I urge you to read as much of it as you can. I tried to group articles under the relevant topical headings. There is some unavoidable overlap, so please have patience.  I believe there are vital lessons contained herein.

Communications breakdown: Minimizing the threat

New York Times, March 7, 2020: Inside Trump Administration, Debate Raged Over What to Tell Public.  Subheadline: The administration’s response to the coronavirus has repeatedly matched public health experts against a hesitant White House, where worry of panic dominates.

Washington Post, March 7, 2020: Squandered time: How the Trump administration lost control of the coronavirus crisis.  Excerpt:

At the White House, Trump and many of his aides were initially skeptical of just how serious the coronavirus threat was, while the president often seemed uninterested as long as the virus was abroad. At first, when he began to engage, he downplayed the threat — “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he tweeted in late February — and became a font of misinformation and confusion, further muddling his administration’s response. … Confusion in the ranks below Trump made things worse.”

Washington Post, March 9, 2020: The Trump administration has contradicted itself on coronavirus no fewer than 14 times in less than a month. Video synopsis:

Twitter: March 9, 2020 – President Trump tweeted:

New York Times, March 15, 2020: A Complete List of Trump’s Attempts to Play Down Coronavirus. He could have taken action. He didn’t. Excerpt:

“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

But then, a turn reported March 16 by the Washington Post:  Americans kept wondering what the president wanted them to do about coronavirus. Finally, Trump offered some guidance. Excerpt:

Nearly eight weeks after the first coronavirus case was reported in the United States, Trump conveyed that he at last recognizes the magnitude of the crisis that is threatening lives across the nation, disrupting the economy and fundamentally upending the daily rhythms of American life. …“We have an invisible enemy.”

It was a turn mirrored the same day by the President’s favorite network. On Fox News, suddenly a very different tune about the coronavirus, reported the Post.

Washington Post, March 17, 2020: A timeline of Trump playing down the coronavirus threat  Excerpt:  March 10 – “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

New York Times, March 18, 2020: The President vs. the Experts: How Trump Downplayed the Coronavirus.  Excerpt:

Mr. Trump insisted, “Anybody that needs a test can have a test.”

US Department of Health & Human Services Director Alex Azar was forced to clarify: “You may not get a test unless a doctor or public health official prescribes a test.”

When U.S. cases surpassed 100, Mr. Trump assured attendees at a rally in Charlotte, N.C., that a vaccine was on the way. “We had a great meeting today with a lot of the great companies, and they’re going to have vaccines, I think, relatively soon,” he said.

But earlier that day, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a vaccine would take time. “You won’t have a vaccine,” he said, noting that a vaccine would need to be tested first. It would take, he said, “a year to a year and a half.”

New York Times, March 19, 2020: Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded.  Government exercises, including one last year, made clear that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic like the coronavirus. But little was done.  Excerpt:

Asked at his news briefing on Thursday about the government’s preparedness, Mr. Trump responded: “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.”

The work done over the past five years, however, demonstrates that the government had considerable knowledge about the risks of a pandemic and accurately predicted the very types of problems Mr. Trump is now scrambling belatedly to address. …

“Nobody ever thought of numbers like this,’’ Mr. Trump said on Wednesday, at a news conference.

In fact, they had.

Washington Post, March 19, 2020: Coronavirus deniers and hoaxers persist despite dire warnings, claiming ‘it’s mass hysteria’ Excerpt:

Virus deniers vow to continue on with their daily activities with little adjustment, convinced that the unprecedented reaction to the virus is nothing more than a plot by the media or liberals out to get Trump. The Pew Research Center released a poll Wednesday that found that 62 percent of adults say the media is exaggerating the risk of the virus.

Rolling Stone, March 22: Trump’s Coronavirus Response Will Be His Toxic Legacy. Excerpt:

Trump knows this is how he will be judged. That’s why he’s growing so unhinged in public. He’s going to his familiar playbook and trying all his tricks. But a virus is not something he can insult or lie his way out of. People are dying. Our economy, seemingly so strong, cratered in a mere ten days. The virus is not Trump’s fault of course, but the dismantling of the pandemic response team at the National Security Council surely is. Ignoring the threat for months also rests on his shoulders. The nation is now on the brink, and how he handles the crisis is his test. It should be clear to all, he’s failing miserably.

Drug research

New York Times, March 19, 2020: With Minimal Evidence, Trump Asks F.D.A. to Study Malaria Drugs for Coronavirus: The use of the existing drugs against the new virus is unproven, and some shortages have already been reported.

President Trump on Thursday exaggerated the potential of drugs available to treat the new coronavirus, including an experimental antiviral treatment and decades-old malaria remedies that hint of promise but so far show limited evidence of healing the sick.

No drug has been approved to treat the new coronavirus, and doctors around the world have been desperately administering an array of medicines in search of something to help patients, especially those who are severely ill.

…(FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn) noted that the agency’s job was to prove that drugs were safe and effective. “What’s also important is not to provide false hope, but to provide hope,” he said.

STAT, March 19, 2020:  With the coronavirus surging, Trump wants drug development to move far faster.  It can’t. Excerpt:

For about 20 minutes on Thursday, President Trump undermined six decades of dogma on the development of safe and effective drugs.

Trump, addressing a nation under shelter and quarantine from the coronavirus pandemic, said a new drug for Covid-19, yet to be proved safe and effective, was now “approved or very close to approved.” Another, also not approved for coronavirus, would be “available almost immediately,” in part because using it is “not going to kill anybody.”

Then, minutes later, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, took the dais in the White House briefing room and delicately walked back each one of Trump’s statements.

Washington Post, March 19, 2020:  Trump repeats incorrect claim that FDA has approved a malaria drug to fight the coronavirus. Excerpt:

President Trump incorrectly said in a Thursday news briefing that chloroquine, a malaria drug, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to fight the novel coronavirus….Later Thursday, during a video teleconference with governors, Trump repeated the incorrect claim several more times. (The FDA), Trump said, “got it approved very quickly; I won’t even tell you how quickly.”

Taking credit – for anything possible

Sometime in the past few weeks or months, journalists started noticing that public relations news releases from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) would begin with the phrase, “Under President Trump’s leadership….” Here’s just one example. 

MSNBC, March 17, 2020: Revising history, Trump makes bizarre claim about pandemic foresight. A week after accusing journalists and Dems of trying to “inflame the coronavirus situation,” Trump wants credit for recognizing the pandemic threat early. Excerpt:

“I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic…. I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”

Chinese Coronavirus?

Columbia Journalism Review, March 18, 2020: daily email headlined Trump vs. China.  Excerpt:

China’s expulsion of American journalists comes amid tensions between the two countries on numerous fronts, not least the coronavirus. Last week, an official in China’s foreign ministry accused the US military of implanting the virus in Wuhan, where it originated; in the US, President Trump and his allies in Congress and the news media have taken to calling the virus “the Chinese Virus,” and variations thereupon. The World Health Organization and other observers stress that such framing is stigmatizing, yet it abounds in conservative circles. Yesterday, Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent at CBS News, said a White House official referred to the virus, in her presence, as the “Kung-Flu”—a term that’s gaining traction on the far right.

The Atlantic, March 18, 2020: The ‘Chinese Virus’ Is a Test. Don’t Fail It. Excerpt:

Here’s the gullibility test: When you read “the Chinese virus,” are you most offended by Trump’s insistence on racializing the pandemic, or by the administration’s cowardice and incompetence, which may kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and have already decimated the economy several times over?

Washington Post, March 18, 2020: Trump defends use of phrase ‘Chinese virus’: ‘It’s not racist at all’ (Scroll down to 11:51 a.m. entry.)

Twitter, March 18, 2020:  President Trump found time to tweet:

Washington Post, March 20, 2020: Trump has no qualms about calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a dangerous attitude, experts say.  Excerpt:

“He’s not providing leadership, what he’s providing is ‘misleadership.’ Misleadership means you divert attention, you scapegoat and you make the matter worse.”

Newsweek, March 21, 2020: A ‘Chinese Coronavirus’? Officials accuse Trump of stoking xenophobia and violence against Asian-Americans

Organizations and lawmakers throughout California as well as nationally are condemning recent rhetoric by President Donald Trump describing the novel coronavirus. They say his words, intentionally or not, encourage prejudice and violence against people of Chinese or Asian descent.

…The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has discouraged such phrasing, and earlier this month CDC director Robert Redfield said it is “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” to call COVID-19 the “Chinese coronavirus.”

…The World Health Organization advises against using geographic terms with new diseases.

Contradictions with his team, health officials, state/local governments

NextDraft.com email of March 16, 2020: It’s Lonely At The Top.  Excerpt: “Expertise has offended Trump … His circle of loyalists is so lacking in policy expertise that the writing of his speech on the coronavirus from the Oval Office last week was left mainly to his nativist immigration counsellor Stephen Miller and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.”

David Remnick in The New Yorker: Trump, Truth, and the Mishandling of the Coronavirus CrisisExcerpt: 

“It is a saddening experience to read Beth Cameron’s recent account, in the Washington Post, of what happened to the office she led during the Obama Administration: the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. In 2018, the Trump Administration closed it. Cameron writes that she was “mystified” by the decision, one that left the United States less prepared for pandemics such as the current one.

When Yamiche Alcindor, a reporter for “PBS NewsHour,” asked the President at a Rose Garden press conference last week why he shut down the office, Trump’s response was evasive and petulant: “I think it’s a nasty question.” Testifying before Congress, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, allowed, “It would be nice if the office was still there.”

BusinessInsider.com, March 19, 2020: 6 times Trump contradicted public officials about the coronavirus pandemic. Excerpt: “…numerous times over the past month, the president has publicly contradicted the messaging from public officials and members of his own coronavirus task force.” Video synopsis:

Dow Jones MarketWatch, March 22: ‘You wasted precious months when you could’ve taken action’ — governors slam Trump’s coronavirus response. Excerpt:

“President Donald Trump on Sunday morning railed against Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, ‘fake news’ CNN and ‘a very small group of certain other Governors’ for their ‘shortcomings.’

Pritzker fired back with a message of his own: ‘Get off Twitter & do your job.’ “

TheHill.com, March 22: Fauci on differing with Trump on coronavirus ‘game-changer’: ‘I just want to get the facts out.’ Excerpt:

“I don’t want to embarrass him,” Fauci, who has become one of the public faces of the administration’s response, told The New York Times in an interview published on Saturday. “I don’t want to act like a tough guy, like I stood up to the president. I just want to get the facts out. And instead of saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ all you need to do is continually talk about what the data are and what the evidence is.”

Fact-checking

USA Today, February 26, 2020: Trump addressed the nation on coronavirus. We checked the facts.

Washington Post, March 3, 2020:  Trump’s baffling coronavirus vaccine event. Video synopsis:

CNN, March 15, 2020: Fact check: Trump falsely claims US has ‘tremendous control’ of the coronavirus. Excerpt:

Trump has repeatedly claimed, falsely, to have the virus under control. He said in late January, soon after the US announced its first confirmed case, that “we have it totally under control.” He said in late February, when the number of confirmed US cases was in the low dozens, that “we have it very much under control in this country.”

FactCheck.org, March 19, 2020: Trump’s statements about the coronavirus.  Video synopsis:

NPR, March 21, 2020: Fact-Checking 5 Trump Administration Claims On The Coronavirus Pandemic

The story covers promises about US Navy hospital ships, FDA drug approval, a Google website, medical supplies and testing. Excerpt:

“One of the most frequent exaggerations coming from the administration is the availability of coronavirus tests. When he visited the CDC in Atlanta earlier this month, Trump claimed that “They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test.” Pence made a similar claim last week, saying that “a million tests are in the field” and that “by the end of this week, another 4 million tests will be distributed.”

(That didn’t happen.)

Washington Post, March 19, 2020 in “The 5-Minute Fix”.

President Trump says daily that the coronavirus caught him and the world off guard. “It’s something that nobody expected,” he said last weekend.

That’s not true. And reporting on Thursday drove home that the warning signs were there, sometimes right in front of him.

CNN, March 22: Trump made 33 false claims about the coronavirus crisis in the first two weeks of March. Excerpt: “The most egregious false claim: The availability of coronavirus tests.”

Impact on public trust

Washington Post, March 14, 2020: Trump is breaking every rule in the CDC’s 450-page playbook for health crisis.  Sub-headline:  The communication chaos on coronavirus is eroding the most powerful weapon we have: Public trust

Washington Post, March 17, 2020:  Trump’s damage is already done. Excerpt:

A new NPR-PBS NewsHourMarist poll finds only 37 percent of Americans “now say they had a good amount or a great deal of trust in what they’re hearing from the president.” Sixty percent have “not very much or no trust at all in what he’s saying.” Imagine if in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 60 percent of the population didn’t trust President George W. Bush.

It’s a Democrats’ hoax

C-SPAN, February 28, 2020: President Trump Campaign Event in North Charleston, South Carolina.  Excerpt:

NOW THE DEMOCRATS ARE POLITICIZING THE CORONAVIRUS. …THEY TRIED THE IMPEACHMENT HOAX. THAT WAS ON A PERFECT CONVERSATION. THEY TRIED ANYTHING. THEY TRIED IT OVER AND OVER AGAIN. THEY LOST. … AND THIS IS THEIR NEW HOAX. WE DID SOMETHING THAT HAS BEEN PRETTY AMAZING. WE HAVE 15 PEOPLE IN THIS MASSIVE COUNTRY AND BECAUSE OF THE FACT THAT WE WENT EARLY, WE COULD’VE HAD A LOT MORE THAN THAT. WE’RE DOING GREAT. OUR COUNTRY IS DOING SO GREAT. WE ARE SO UNIFIED.

It’s manufactured by the liberal fake news media

C-SPAN, February 28, 2020: President Trump Campaign Event in North Charleston, South Carolina.  Excerpt:

SO, A NUMBER THAT NOBODY HEARD OF, I WAS SHOCKED TO HEAR OF IT, 35,000 PEOPLE DIE EACH YEAR FROM THE FLU.  DID ANYONE KNOW THAT? … AND SO FAR WE HAVE LOST NOBODY TO CORONAVIRUS IN THE UNITED STATES. NOBODY. AND IT DOESN’T MEAN WE WON’T. WE ARE TOTALLY PREPARED. IT DOES NOT MEAN WE WON’T. YOU HEAR 35 AND 40,000 PEOPLE AND WE HAVE NOBODY AND YOU WONDER IF THE PRESS IS IN HYSTERIA MODE. CNN, FAKE NEWS AND THE CAMERA JUST WENT OFF. [CROWD BOOS]

Really? He didn’t know people died from the flu? Trump ‘didn’t know people died from the flu.’ It killed his grandfather. Washington Post, March 7, 2020.

New York Times, March 11, 2020: How Right-Wing Pundits Are Covering Coronavirus: Following President Trump’s lead, many commentators have played down fears. Excerpts:

Sean Hannity used his syndicated talk-radio program on Wednesday to share a prediction he had found on Twitter about what is really happening with the coronavirus: It’s a “fraud” by the deep state to spread panic in the populace, manipulate the economy and suppress dissent.

“May be true,” Mr. Hannity declared to millions of listeners around the country.    ….

“This coronavirus?” Rush Limbaugh asked skeptically during his Wednesday program, suggesting it was all a plot hatched by the Chinese. “Nothing like wiping out the entire U.S. economy with a biothreat from China, is there?” he said.

The Fox Business anchor Trish Regan told viewers on Monday that the worry over coronavirus “is yet another attempt to impeach the president.”

Columbia Journalism Review, March 12, 2020:  Pandemic in the right-wing mediasphere. Mentions of the shenanigans of Hannity, Limbaugh, Regan, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Stuart Varney, Tucker Carlson and Rupert Murdoch.

Responsibility

Washington Post, March 14, 2020:  Coronavirus Updates.  Excerpt:

When Trump was asked Friday why he disbanded the White House pandemic office, he denied it, saying, “I didn’t do it … I don’t know anything about it,” and told the reporter it was a “nasty” question. He also said “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the disastrous delays in testing. During that event, the president shook hands, patted backs and touched the microphone 31 times.

As reported in the Washington Post on March 18, 2020:

Reporter: “Doctor [Anthony] Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was, in fact, ‘a failing.’ Do you take responsibility for that?”

President Trump: “No, I don’t take responsibility at all, because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.”

…But as Trump once tweeted, leadership means “whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.”

In his own voice, in his own unforgettable words

Channel Four ITN News, London, presents: Timeline: Trump’s coronavirus comments. Take the time to watch.  It’s an unforgettable 15 minutes – capturing statements that should not be forgotten – a collection of blather, bloviating, braggadocio and BS from the President of the United States.

Or, if you can’t stomach all that, here is a much shorter version:

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