For weeks, President Trump’s allies have defended his early efforts to downplay the coronavirus threat by saying he was just being optimistic — a cheerleader for the country — and that it didn’t actually affect the response.

But a new flap reinforces the potential danger of Trump’s see-no-evil approach to the combating the pandemic.

Trump on Wednesday morning took issue with the media’s portrayal of comments from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield. In a Washington Post interview published Tuesday, Redfield had warned that a second wave of the virus this winter could actually be more severe than the one we are riding.

“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” Redfield told The Post’s Lena H. Sun. He added, “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time."

In a tweet Wednesday, Trump alleged Redfield had been misquoted — though he accused CNN of doing it rather than The Post. He also said Redfield would be putting out a statement on the matter.

No statement was put out, but eight hours later, Trump welcomed Redfield to clarify his comments at the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing. Trump introduced Redfield by again claiming repeatedly that he had been “misquoted.”

But while Redfield emphasized — as he did in the Post interview — that he was talking about the flu and the novel coronavirus combined, he actually affirmed his quote, contradicting Trump.

“I’m accurately quoted in The Washington Post,” Redfield said.

He followed up by arguing that he didn’t use the word “worse," which the Post’s headline used in a paraphrase. But the language he used (“I said it was going to be more difficult and potentially complicated”) would seem to add up to things being worse.

All of that aside, what’s apparent from all this is that Trump is again bristling at a health official offering too dire a scenario. And that matters.

Another key time that happened was Feb. 25. That day, another top CDC official, Nancy Messonnier, made big news by warning that the spread of the virus in the United States was inevitable and that “we need to be preparing for significant disruption in our lives.”

As The Post has reported, this set Trump off:

CDC officials had informed HHS officials in advance of the theme of Messonnier’s comments, and no one from HHS gave any indication immediately afterward that there was any problem. “Nobody thought the messages were wrong,” the official said.
But Trump, watching from abroad in India, was furious at what he viewed as her alarmist rhetoric, which he feared would further tank the already gyrating markets. Word trickled back that Messonnier’s blunt talk was “just too early.”

That may seem like the usual kind of internal squabble that has characterized the Trump administration. But there is evidence that it actually mattered. That’s because it reportedly affected what health officials would do in the days and weeks to come.

The New York Times has reported that health officials had decided around the time of Messonnier’s comments that stricter countermeasures were needed to combat the spread of the virus. But when they saw how Messonnier’s comments had played with Trump, they backed off actually bringing him that recommendation.

Here’s the key paragraph from the Times’s reconstruction:

[Department of Health and Human Services official Robert] Kadlec and other administration officials decided the next day [Feb. 24] to recommend to Mr. Trump that he publicly support the start of these mitigation efforts, such as school closings. But before they could discuss it with the president, who was returning from India, another official went public with a warning, sending the stock market down sharply and angering Mr. Trump. The meeting to brief him on the recommendation was canceled and it was three weeks before Mr. Trump would reluctantly come around to the need for mitigation.

In other words: Trump’s reaction had a material impact on how quickly health officials acted. We can’t say with any certainty that such a recommendation would have changed anything, but Trump’s reaction clearly had a chilling effect. And the measures they were seeking wouldn’t happen until weeks later.

The situation now is similar, if less immediate. Redfield seems to be concerned enough about a second wave this winter that he’s putting out word early — perhaps in hopes that we can adjust our approach to be ready to deal with that eventuality. Trump is signaling that he doesn’t want to hear it, though, and it’s not hard to see how that could hamper the preparedness for such a second wave.

And as much as anything, it reinforces that Trump’s posture toward the virus hasn’t just been about optimism, but instead about a resistance to the reality that his own health officials have tried to convey. Given everything that’s transpired over the past three months — and the many warnings we’ve discovered that apparently weren’t heeded — it’s difficult to dismiss that as some kind of triviality.

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (The Washington Post)