The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As coronavirus cases climb, the White House line is consistent: Everything is well in hand

President Trump on March 6 again touted his decision to halt travel to countries at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The moment that best explains President Trump’s approach to the accelerating spread of coronavirus in the United States came not earlier this year but in 2017.

Facing criticism for his administration’s slow response to the damage Puerto Rico suffered from Hurricane Maria, Trump traveled to the island and participated in a roundtable with local leaders.

“Every death is a horror,” Trump said. “But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering — nobody has ever seen anything like this. What is your death count, as of this moment — 17?”

The island’s governor corrected him: 16, at that moment.

“Sixteen people versus in the thousands,” Trump replied. “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.”

As Trump was touting it, the number was obviously woefully incorrect. By the time Trump boarded Air Force One a few hours later, the death toll had more than doubled. But recovery operations had only just gotten underway, and people killed directly by the storm were still unaccounted for. Others died in the storm’s aftermath — unable to get medication or to the hospital, for example. The eventual death toll topped that of Katrina.

Trump insisted on hyping the low number, though, because in the moment, it made his administration’s response seem less inadequate. Only 16 people died? Why, President George W. Bush’s handling of Katrina was therefore far worse! When later estimates suggested a death toll closer to 3,000, Trump said openly that those numbers were wrong, without indicating what the accurate numbers might be.

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We’ve seen the same strategy play out in response to the spread of the coronavirus: Hype low numbers and insist that everything’s under control, even as evidence mounts that it isn’t.

In the first news conference Trump held that was centered on the virus, he focused on 15 cases that had been reported in the United States, largely ignoring a group of patients who had been evacuated to the United States from a cruise ship throughout which the virus had spread.

“The level that we’ve had in our country is very low, and those people are getting better, or we think that in almost all cases they’re better, or getting,” Trump said then. “… Of the 15 people — the ‘original 15,’ as I call them — eight of them have returned to their homes, to stay in their homes until fully recovered. One is in the hospital, and five have fully recovered. And one is, we think, in pretty good shape, and it’s in between hospital and going home. So we have a total of — but we have a total of 15 people, and they’re in a process of recovering, with some already having fully recovered.”

“We have a total of 15 cases,” he reiterated again later, “many of which, or most — within a day, I will tell you most of whom are fully recovered.”

By the end of that day, there were 57 cases in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. What Trump didn’t mention at that news conference was that the country had seen the first case of “community spread” of the virus — meaning a case that emerged in California without being obviously connected to a foreign country. That development suggested that the virus was out of containment.

Two days later, Trump made clear that he was focused on how his administration had been criticized for its handling of the virus.

Democrats, he said at a rally, “tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over. … It’s all turning, they lost. It’s all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country, and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.”

By the end of that day, there were 60 reported cases. That total soon spiked.

Over the course of Thursday, Trump twice addressed the number of cases in the United States.

The first was Thursday morning, when Trump tweeted about the total number of cases, downplaying its spread.

A few hours later, he participated in a town hall on Fox News. Even over just that period, 20 more cases had been added.

“I closed [travel from China] down very early, against the advice of almost everybody,” Trump said. He’s repeatedly claimed that he faced broad opposition to this measure, which isn’t demonstrably true. “And we have been given rave reviews. And that’s why we have only right now 11 — it’s a lot of people, but it’s still 11 people, versus tremendous numbers of thousands of people that have died all over the world. We have 11. We have 149 cases as of this moment. This morning, it was 129. And I just see you — right now, it’s about 149 cases. There are 100,000 cases all over the world. So we’re really given tremendous marks for having made the decision.”

It’s interesting to note how the metric shifted. At first, he focused on the 15 cases. When that spiked past 100, he began to focus on the 11 deaths — a more serious metric but, useful for Trump’s purposes, one involving a lower number.

On Friday morning, Trump again discussed the spread of the coronavirus with reporters.

“Last night, we did an interview on Fox last night, a town hall. I think it was very good,” Trump said. “And I said: ‘Calm. You have to be calm. It’ll go away,’” Trump said. He noted that there is another cruise ship with reported cases, perhaps as a way to explain why the numbers of cases might soon surge.

“We have very low numbers compared to major countries throughout the world,” Trump said. “Our numbers are lower than just about anybody. And in terms of deaths, I don’t know what the count is,” he said. “Today is it 11? Eleven people.”

“I think it was 13,” someone in the room added. It’s 14.

“And in terms of cases,” Trump continued, “it’s very, very few. When you look at other countries, it’s a very tiny fraction because we’ve been very strong at the borders. But then you have a ship with a lot of Americans on it. It’s got 5,000 people on it, it’s a massive ship. And, you know, they want to come in. So we have to make a decision."

On CNBC, Trump’s National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow — a former CNBC host — insisted that investors should remain calm because the virus “is contained” though it “can’t be airtight.”

It’s obviously not the case that it’s contained. The virus has probably been in the wild in the Pacific Northwest for weeks. Elsewhere on the CNBC website, a news story quoted a doctor who treated the first coronavirus patient in the United States as saying that it was out of containment. In Silicon Valley, officials on Thursday recommended canceling large public gatherings such as sporting events after the number of cases hit 20 thanks to the virus no longer being in containment. In New York City, nearly 3,000 people are in quarantine out of concern that they may be carrying the virus.

As of writing, the number of reported cases relative to the population is indeed small, and the number of deaths very low relative to threats such as the seasonal flu. As with Hurricane Maria, though, it’s obvious that things will continue to get worse. Trump and his team diminish that reality in part because they do want Americans (including or especially investors) to remain calm. But Trump clearly also wants to ensure that his administration is viewed as handling the virus’s spread capably, necessitating that he revise his metrics as he goes to emphasize low numbers while ignoring spikes in numbers he suggested wouldn’t spike.

After all, unlike 2017, it’s an election year.