At the daily news briefing, Trump played up the promise of a malaria drug to possibly treat the coronavirus. He was asked about its application to other similar diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome, for which he said he thought the drug had been “fairly effective."
But then Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading immunologist, stepped in to qualify things.
“You’ve got to be careful when you say ‘fairly effective,’” Fauci told Fox News’s John Roberts. “It was never done in a clinical trial that compared it to anything. It was given to individuals and felt that maybe it works.”
In the next exchange, NBC’s Peter Alexander noted that Trump had said the day before about some of the drugs “we’re in really good shape on, and that’s for immediate delivery — immediate — like as fast as we can get it.”
Trump watered that down somewhat Friday, acknowledging there is a process to approving drugs for the new purpose. But he added, “I am a man that comes from a very positive school when it comes to, in particular, one of these drugs.” He added: “People may be surprised by the way there would be a game-changer."
Alexander noted that Fauci has sung a very different tune on this topic, though, saying there is no “magic drug.” Alexander suggested Trump might agree, but before he could finish his question, Trump cut in.
“Well,” Trump said, “you know I think we only disagree a little bit. I disagree. Maybe and maybe not. Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t. We have to see."
Alexander countered: “Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things, may be giving Americans a false sense of hope?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Trump said.
Alexander noted it was not yet an approved drug.
“Such a lovely question,” Trump shot back. He tried to say he agreed with Fauci — despite what he had said just a moment before — but then again offered a more optimistic tone than the doctor has about the drug.
“I feel good about it. That’s all it is — just a feeling. [I’m a] smart guy,” Trump said, adding: “We have nothing to lose. You know the expression: What the hell do you have to lose?"
Alexander responded with what might seem like an innocuous question: “What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? Nearly 200 dead. Fourteen thousand are sick. Millions, as you witness, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter; that’s what I say,” Trump said. “I think it’s a very nasty question. And I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism."
He added: “Let me just say something: That’s really bad reporting. And you want to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows? I’ve been right a lot."
But here’s the thing: Alexander rightly noted that Trump was saying something that medical experts like Fauci have strained to avoid — that this drug could be a kind of “game-changer.” Trump actually volunteered that he disagreed with that and said it might be. There is a real difference in what they are saying, and it’s completely fair for a reporter to ask Trump to account for that.
There’s also the backstory here. Trump has, in fact, repeatedly made statements about things that lay ahead in the fight against the coronavirus, and they often haven’t panned out. To wit:
- He said of the malaria drug, “We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately. That’s where the FDA has been so great. They’ve gone through the approval process. It’s been approved. … So we’re going to be able to make that drug available by prescription or states.” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn later clarified that the drug was only approved for malaria.
- He has said health industry leaders agreed to waive all costs of coronavirus treatments, when in fact they only agree to waive co-payments.
- He has said Google was developing a website for the coronavirus and had 1,700 people working on it, but that was apparently news to Google.
- He has oversold the ability to deliver masks and ventilators to health-care professionals, relative to other officials.
- He said two hospital ships were being dispatched to help, but we later learned they were weeks away and wouldn’t be helping with the coronavirus, but rather other illnesses.
While Trump may not be downplaying the coronavirus as much as he used to, he sure is overplaying some of the measures that can be used to combat it. Alexander was right to press him on that point, and Trump’s eruption at him for pointing out the mixed messages between Trump and Fauci really says it all.
Trump told Alexander he was putting out a “very bad signal” to the American people, but Alexander was simply noting that the signal Trump is emitting was on a much more optimistic frequency than Fauci seems to desire.
Trump has long had a tendency to oversell things as president, which perhaps owes to his history as a salesman and a showman. But this is precisely the time when health officials caution against over-selling things. And Trump losing his temper over a reporter trying to inject some realism into the situation — which Trump has likened to a war — doesn’t exactly suggest he’s making cold, calculated decisions.
But Trump seems almost immune to bad news on the coronavirus; he also cut off another reporter earlier this week who said the economy had “ground to a halt."
“Thanks for telling us,” Trump said sarcastically. “We appreciate it.”
It’s also important to note what happened earlier Friday: We found out one of Alexander’s colleagues at NBC News had died of the coronavirus. This was a completely fair time for a reporter from that organization to be asking about people being scared. Instead, Trump lashed out and derided NBC as “ConCast.”
Alexander asked the same question of Vice President Pence later. Pence’s response: "I would say do not be afraid; be vigilant.”
I offered both Pres Trump and VP Pence an opportunity to reassure Americans.— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) March 20, 2020
Simple question: “What do you say to Americans who are scared?”
Trump, to me: “I say, you’re a terrible reporter.”
Pence, an hour later: “Don’t be afraid. Be vigilant.”