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Opinion Trump’s latest coronavirus lies have a galling subtext

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump is now claiming he has a “hunch” that the World Health Organization is wrong about the death rate from coronavirus — it’s far lower, Trump claims — while also suggesting that going to work with the virus isn’t dangerous.

Meanwhile, Trump is attacking Democratic criticism of his administration’s response to the virus as nothing more than an effort to hurt him politically — a move that’s designed to place his government’s handling of a public health emergency beyond scrutiny entirely.

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Each of those things is profoundly galling on its own. But if you put them together, they add up to something substantially worse than the sum of their parts.

To wit: It is now falling to Democratic elected officials to correct Trump’s lies to the American people about something that poses a dire threat to them. At times Democrats are literally going around Trump to get the real truth out to the public.

Yet even as this is happening, Trump is working to delegitimize what those Democrats are saying. It’s a double whammy of gaslighting: Trump is misleading the American people while making it harder for other elected officials to responsibly inform them where Trump will not.

Trump’s appearance on ‘Hannity’

On Wednesday night, Trump was asked by Sean Hannity about a World Health Organization official’s recent declaration that “globally, around 3.4 percent of reported covid-19 cases have died.”

“I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number,” Trump replied. Conceding that this was just based on “my hunch,” Trump added that “a lot of people” will have the “very mild” coronavirus and don’t go to a doctor, so you “never hear about those people.”

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“So you can’t put them down in the category — the overall population — in terms of this corona-flu, or virus,” Trump continued, adding that “you have thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by sitting around — and even going to work — some of them go to work. But they get better.”

So Trump is claiming that the number of reported cases does not reflect the number of actual cases, inflating the WHO death rate. The WHO statistic does, in fact, reflect reported cases, but that’s exactly how the number is advertised.

So the claim that this percentage is “false” on this basis is itself a lie. And there’s no earthly reason for Trump to say this, other than to minimize impressions of the public health threat we face. And we already know Trump has worked to minimize those impressions precisely because he feared they would rattle the markets, which Trump views as key to his reelection chances.

Worse, to buttress this latest claim, Trump added that a lot of people “get better” even if they go to work with the virus.

That’s not quite a declaration that people should go to work if they suspect they have come down with it. But it does send a very strong message that people who do suspect this can go to work in the expectation that they’ll get better, which could make them more likely to do so.

This has already been widely pilloried as scandalously irresponsible, since it could mislead a lot of people and put them at greater risk. But there’s another dimension to this as well.

Trump’s bottomless self-pity

In the same “Hannity” interview, Trump also unleashed a self-pitying rant about how Democrats are cynically criticizing the response for the sole purpose of damaging him. This echoes other similar claims from Trump in recent days.

These, too, are lies. While politics will always creep into a situation like this, the fact is that many of the Democratic criticisms in recent days have reflected genuine substantive differences over how our government should respond to this public health crisis, and what we should learn from it.

For instance, Democrats initially criticized Trump for calling for too little in response funding, and insisted on more. A bigger package has now been negotiated in the House on a bipartisan basis, and Trump will likely accept it.

Thus, the criticism of Trump reoriented the government onto a better course. Criticism and scrutiny worked in the public interest, which gives the lie to Trump’s whining about it.

What’s more, Democrats have claimed that coronavirus shows previous decisions by the White House — the elimination of a top position on pandemics and the ignoring of an expert panel’s warnings about future global health threats — are misguided. And they have argued for more funding and preparedness in the future.

Yet Trump wants all such debates off the table entirely. Really? We must not debate how to learn from this emergency to be prepared for future ones, because Trump must not be criticized for anything, ever?

Perhaps most gallingly, in reality, what Democrats are actually doing in some cases is informing the public in a way that Trump is not. Indeed, in some cases, they are correcting his falsehoods.

In response to Trump’s “Hannity” appearance, for instance, Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.) tweeted:


Why is it falling to House Democrats to do this?

As experts tell CNN’s John Harwood, Trump is shirking on a basic presidential responsibility to inform the American people. And this could have serious consequences.

Now, none of this necessarily casts doubt on the hard work that administration professionals are doing to manage the crisis. Indeed, if anything, by misleading the public, Trump is surely making this task harder for his own health officials. He’s putting out misinformation that requires correction by them.

Democrats are trying to pick up the slack. But on top of all this, by telling his supporters — millions of Americans — that everything Democrats say is about damaging him, Trump is also telling them not to believe any such correctives.

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