First, he could actually have said it to his aides in keeping with his insistence at the beginning of the pandemic that there were 15 people detected with the virus “and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” This would mean Trump is incapable of grasping the most elementary principles of science and leading us during a pandemic when testing and tracing are critical.
Second, he could have been boasting that he said such a thing — because he somehow thinks it is a clever solution to making the statistics look less horrible — but he did not actually say it to anyone with authority to reduce testing. Once more, this suggests he has no ability to discern between critical tasks (e.g., testing) and his own nonsense — nor does he know what will offend or shock people with a conscience and a rudimentary understanding of the virus.
Third, the excuse Trump chose, was that he was “joking,” his all-purpose excuse when he says something stupid even though there is zero evidence he was being humorous. (And what is humorous about reducing the number of tests?) At the very least, then, Trump is entirely cavalier and unfeeling about the nearly 120,000 Americans who have died and more than 2 million who have been infected.
The Biden campaign put out a statement bashing Trump’s remark. In a written statement, the campaign argued that “as the American people suffer through rising coronavirus cases and fight to get back to work and get our economy back on track, Donald Trump made one of the most damning admissions in presidential history: that he ordered federal officials to slow down testing just to artificially suppress numbers and conceal his atrocious mismanagement of the worst public health crisis in generations.” Biden’s team declared that “it wasn’t a joke: it was a confession. Look no further than Trump’s own past statements.” The statement concluded, “Donald Trump just announced to the entire country that he cares more about saving his job than he does about saving lives or building our economy back. And that is unforgettable.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her own statement seemed to take Trump’s remark at face value. “Testing, tracing, treatment and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but President Trump orders his Administration to slow down the testing that saves lives,” she said. “The President’s efforts to slow down desperately needed testing to hide the true extent of the virus mean more Americans will lose their lives.” She summed up: “The President is ethically unfit and intellectually unprepared to lead. Senator McConnell must stop obstructing the Heroes Act and the life-saving testing resources it provides.”
I tend to think the second explanation — Trump was not joking (he rarely does and has no real sense of humor, mistaking insults for jokes) but may not exactly have told the truth either — is the most likely. It is plain that Trump would like to make the data look better and probably has mused about de-emphasizing testing, but it’s far from clear that he would have actually given such direction knowing his advisers would consider him ignorant, disturbed or both.
In short, we have a president who does not know how to lead, does not understand what sounds irrational to average Americans (outside his base) and does not have the will or ability to broaden testing and tracing, which, along with mask-wearing (which he also disdains), hold the best promise for reducing deaths before there is a vaccine. Pelosi hit the nail on the head: The president is ethically unfit and intellectually unprepared to lead.
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