“What do I know? I’m not a doctor.”

It’s rare that President Trump speaks with even that level of clarity. Unfortunately, this observation came Sunday amid an avalanche of nonsense about the anti-malaria drug that he believes to be a magic bullet against covid-19. It is remarkable how a tongue-twisting word few of us were familiar with a month ago — hydroxychloroquine — has suddenly come to represent so many of the reasons Trump should not be president, especially during a time of crisis.

That one word illustrates Trump’s arbitrary, anecdote-based method of making decisions; his reliance on cronies who have no relevant expertise; his rejection of science, or perhaps his failure to understand how science even works; his defiant stubbornness in clinging to what he “knows,” even when he doesn’t actually know it; his obsessiveness even in the face of contrary evidence; and his imperviousness to fact-based arguments he does not want to hear.

In recent days, doctors have had to clarify President Trump's claims that there are promising and FDA-approved drug treatments for covid-19. (The Washington Post)

Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, Trump spent a good part of Sunday’s covid-19 briefing touting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19. Why is he so convinced? Because “they say” it works.

Who are “they” who make such a claim? Certainly not the expert scientists who are supposed to be leading the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said repeatedly that evidence of hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness is at best anecdotal. 

Instead of heeding Fauci’s caution, Trump has reportedly been listening to his personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who told The Post in an interview that he has advocated the use of the drug “three or four times” in phone calls with the president. “I discussed it with the president after he talked about it,” Giuliani said. “I told him what I had on the drugs.”

Another advocate for hydroxychloroquine is Peter Navarro, Trump’s friend and economic adviser, who reportedly got into a shouting match with Fauci about the drug at a White House meeting on Saturday. Navarro — an economist, not a medical doctor — told CNN he was qualified to assess the drug’s effectiveness because “I’m a social scientist. . . . I have a PhD. And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it's in medicine, the law, economics or whatever.”

There are, indeed, small preliminary studies conducted in China and France showing, according to their authors, that hydroxychloroquine is of some benefit to patients suffering from covid-19. I am no more qualified than Navarro or Giuliani to evaluate those studies. But Fauci has pointed out that the study in France involved just 20 patients with no control group, and that six other patients who were originally part of the study cohort were dropped and excluded from the results, including three who had to be put in intensive care and one who died.

If I had a loved one who was hospitalized and desperately ill with covid-19, I would want doctors to try everything, including hydroxychloroquine, that might conceivably help. But Trump has dangerously suggested that the drug be taken prophylactically by healthy people to guard against the disease. Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat some autoimmune conditions, and Trump has cited anecdotal reports from a handful of doctors that their patients who suffer from lupus seem to have some resistance to covid-19. “I may take it,” Trump said Saturday.

Last month, an Arizona man died after ingesting a non-pharmaceutical form of a related drug — chloroquine phosphate — used to clean aquarium tanks. No, Trump never told anyone to swallow aquarium cleaner. But the man’s wife, who also took the substance but survived, told NBC News that she heard about hydroxychloroquine from Trump’s briefings and “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn't that the stuff they're talking about on TV?’ ”

The upshot is that the federal government, spurred by Trump’s obsession, has spent time and money amassing a massive stockpile of a drug that may or may not be of value against covid-19, though it definitely helps patients with a range of other conditions who now are having trouble obtaining it

I hope it turns out that hydroxychloroquine actually works. I hope Trump’s instinct about this drug is better than his original instinct that covid-19 was no worse than the seasonal flu. Hope, however, is not part of the scientific method.

Reporters tried to ask Fauci again about hydroxychloroquine Sunday, but Trump would not let him answer. We have a president, unfortunately, who is often wrong — but never in doubt.

Twitter: @Eugene_Robinson

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