Many Americans are justifiably concerned. For weeks, President Trump has tried to assuage those concerns by presenting often-simplistic or misleading assurances. Since he began participating in daily briefings on the spread of the illness, he has repeatedly hyped new developments that often were quickly shown to be overstated or nonexistent.
It was with that in mind that NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander pressed Trump on the president’s claims during a briefing on Friday that an anti-malarial drug might be particularly effective at treating the disease. A colleague of Alexander’s, an NBC technician named Larry Edgeworth, died of covid-19 this week. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force, had noted that there was not yet evidence that the drug was any sort of silver bullet; Trump presented the possibility that it might be.
In what may be one of the defining exchanges of this political moment, Alexander pivoted to ask Trump how the president might allay the concerns of Americans looking for some optimism.
“What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? I guess nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now,” Alexander asked. “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” Trump replied. “That’s what I say.”
Trump went on to disparage Alexander’s employer.
Shortly afterward, another reporter asked Fauci about the apparent conflict with Trump’s view of the drug and then posed a similar question as Alexander’s, in her colleague’s defense.
“Could you please issue — address Americans in this country who are scared right now?” she asked Trump. “This is a very valid concern that people have.”
After Fauci responded to the first part of her question (Trump was talking about hope; he was talking about science), Trump answered the second part.
“My message to the American people is that there is a very low incidence of death,” Trump said. “You understand that. And we’re going to come through this stronger than ever before. If you get it, if you happen to get it, it is highly unlikely. It’s looking like it’s getting to a number that’s much smaller than people originally thought in terms of the ultimate — the ultimate problem, which would be death.”
One thing that’s pertinent to the debate is that concern about the coronavirus is much higher among Democrats than among Republicans.
There aren’t data on how “scared” people are (perhaps in part because few people might be willing to admit that emotion), but YouGov has repeatedly asked Americans how concerned they are about contracting the virus and about the seriousness of covid-19. While less than half of both parties expressed concern about the virus at the end of February, concern among Democrats has risen much faster since the first coronavirus death in the country and since the first reports of community spread, new cases not linked to international travel.
Democrats are much more likely than Americans overall to express concern about the virus. Republicans, though they now express somewhat more concern than a month ago, are much less likely than Americans overall to express concern about contracting the virus.
To some extent, that’s likely a function of Trump’s efforts to downplay the virus. Democrats are much less likely to take Trump at his word while Republicans broadly trust him more than the media, even on this subject. Republicans express less concern in part, it seems safe to assume, because Trump is pressing Americans not to be concerned — and Republicans are listening.
A bit later in the briefing, Alexander asked Vice President Pence what message he might offer those worried about the virus.
“You’ve seen the numbers. You’ve spoken to average Americans,” he asked. “You’re a former governor. What do you say to Americans right now who are watching and who are scared?”
“I would say do not be afraid, be vigilant,” Pence replied. “All the experts tell us that the risk of serious illness to the average American for the coronavirus is low, but we need every American to put into practice the president’s coronavirus guidelines: ’15 days to Slow the Spread.’ Because the coronavirus is about three times more contagious than the flu, according to our best estimate. And you can contract the coronavirus, have very mild symptoms, if any, not even be aware that you have it, and expose someone who is vulnerable to a very serious health outcome.”
Pence chose not to disparage Alexander’s employer.