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Which is Trump more worried about: Coronavirus numbers or coronavirus patients?

A comment on Friday suggests it’s the former.

President Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) commented on the Grand Princess cruise ship and overall travel amid the novel coronavirus outbreak on March 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

A comment President Trump made during his visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday brought into focus a unifying theory of his administration’s fumbling response to the growing spread of the coronavirus.

He was asked if passengers on a cruise ship anchored near San Francisco, some of whom have been exposed to the virus, should be brought ashore.

“From my standpoint, I want to rely on people. I have great experts, including our vice president who is working 24 hours a day on this stuff. They would like to have the people come off,” he said, wearing a baseball cap promoting his reelection campaign. “I’d rather have the people stay, but I’d go with them. I told them to make the final decision.”

“I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump continued. “I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault. And it wasn't the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn't their fault either and they're mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I'd rather have them stay on, personally.”

Trump can live with patients with coronavirus staying on a cruise ship with uninfected passengers. Whether those patients or future patients can live with that decision is entirely the point.

It was the sort of admission that someone makes when they may not even be aware that they’re admitting to something. In this case that admission was straightforward: Trump is as — or more — concerned about the political fallout of the growing number of coronavirus cases in the United States as he is about how those cases should be handled.

His preoccupation with that number, how many cases of coronavirus there are in the country, has been apparent since his first news conference on the subject on Feb. 26. Then, too, he focused on a number that was demonstrably too low: 15 cases. He explained why:

“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,” he said then. “We have a total of 15. We took in some from Japan — you heard about that — because they’re American citizens, and they’re in quarantine. And they’re getting better too.”

Those patients “from Japan” were passengers aboard another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. Nearly 700 people contracted the virus while it was quarantined, and six passengers died.

“But we felt we had an obligation to do that,” he continued. “It could have been as many as 42. And we found that we were — it was just an obligation we felt that we had. We could have left them, and that would have been very bad — very bad, I think — of American people. And they’re recovering.”

Trump has repeatedly downplayed the spread of the disease. On Thursday, he boasted on Twitter that there were “only 129 cases” in the country — again highlighting the number brought to the United States from the Diamond Princess.

By the end of the day, another 20 cases were announced.

The spread of the virus in the United States was predicted by experts from outside and inside the government. Last month, Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, predicted that the virus would spread beyond those cases linked to international travel — referred to as “community spread” — and that “disruption to everyday life might be severe."

Trump was reportedly angry about her comments and, more specifically, the effect it had on the markets. The day prior, Trump had tweeted that the virus was “very much under control in the USA” and that the markets were “starting to look very good” to him.

Two days later, news of the first case of community-transmitted coronavirus emerged. The story broke during that news conference on Feb. 26, but no one from the administration addressed it.

What’s particularly alarming about Trump’s focus on the numbers is that it seems as if it might offer an explanation for the government’s slow rollout of testing systems. The United States has only completed a couple thousand tests for the virus, according to reporting from the Atlantic. In South Korea, nearly 67,000 people were tested in the first week after community spread was discovered.

What went wrong with the coronavirus tests

The U.S.'s testing was hobbled by a faulty test produced by the CDC, something that has apparently been corrected. But it’s hard to uncouple that delay and the slow testing from Trump’s obvious desire to keep numbers low. Sure, there are only a few hundred known cases in the United States, but the key word there is “known.” Experts think the virus has been in the wild in Washington for weeks — meaning many cases that haven’t yet been detected there alone.

If you don't test for the illness, you can't know how many people have it. And if you don't know how many people have it, the low numbers you tout on Twitter are obviously incomplete.

Again, though, the most striking thing about Trump’s comments Friday were their callousness.

Some passengers on the Grand Princess, the ship near San Francisco that is part of the same cruise line as the Diamond Princess, only learned about the coronavirus case onboard during news coverage of a news briefing held by Pence. The message they and their families hear now is that the president of the United States would like them to remain there, confined to the ship as the passengers on the Diamond Princess were, possibly with the same fate. And why? So that the number of cases in the U.S. doesn’t increase.

Consider why such an increase would be bad. It's not that bringing the passengers ashore would infect them or, if handled properly, that they'd infect other people. Trump's concern is just that numeric increase, a concern that has no other apparent root besides his insistence that his administration is keeping that particular number low. Efforts to remove the passengers are facing friction from the president primarily because of that political concern.

Again, a stunning admission from Trump. But also a hopelessly shortsighted one. The number of coronavirus cases in the United States will almost certainly soon be high enough that another few hundred is incidental. As Messonnier warned, the virus is becoming increasingly pervasive; worries about there being 300 or 500 cases will become increasingly trivial. The political benefit of keeping the number low in the moment, to whatever extent there is any political benefit, is fleeting.

Meanwhile, those passengers and their families wait to see how important their lives are to their government.