So, multiple White House officials said he was joking. And then Trump on Tuesday, as has often been the case, assured the opposite. “I don’t kid,” he said.
That leaves Republicans with an uneasy choice: suggest Trump is lying, or suggest he’s actually pushing for the unthinkable.
They appear to be going with the former.
At a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, Anthony S. Fauci, an infectious-diseases expert and member of the White House coronavirus task force, assured that he wasn’t aware of any health official being told to slow down testing. “To my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing,” Fauci said. “That just is a fact.”
The ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), soon sought to emphasize the point. He asked Fauci and the three other officials appearing — Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn; and testing czar Brett Giroir — to disclose whether they’d been told to slow down testing.
“Has President Trump ever directed you to slow down testing for covid-19 in the United States?” Walden asked
All four said no.
It bears noting that there are other ways to slow down testing than to tell health officials to do so. It’s also possible Trump could have told someone else to slow down the testing — besides these four men. But the president said he told “my people” to slow down the testing. One of these people is his testing czar, Giroir, who would be an obvious choice for such a request. Giroir, though, says he has received no such request.
The problem with this defense, though, is that it implicitly means Trump isn’t telling the truth. That appears to be preferable to the idea that he actually meant what he said.
Trump’s allies often revel in his ability to troll the media with his public pronouncements — stirring the pot to elicit a desired mix of outrage and confusion. But in this case, that defense is particularly problematic. On the list of things a president should not troll on or joke about, vital testing during the course of a pandemic is very high up.
Even if Trump is truly doing this for fun — which, I confess, I still think is probably the case, despite what he said early Tuesday — his commentary throughout this outbreak has suggested he doesn’t like to see the numbers rise. From the very beginning, he has viewed the numbers as a referendum on his handling of the matter and doesn’t like to see them rise, however accurately. He seems to believe, inexplicably, that bad numbers in the near term are more damaging than a bad outcome over the long term.
That kind of short-term approach to his coronavirus commentary, though, has bitten him in the backside before. As Europe has significantly reduced its number of coronavirus cases thanks to societies coming together to follow health officials’ guidelines, Trump has thumbed his nose at those guidelines and urged a more aggressive return to something amounting to normal. The result is that our outbreak has lasted significantly longer, and shows plenty of signs of resurgence, particularly in states such as Arizona, Florida and Texas.
Even if Trump is joking, what message does it send to health officials who might be making decisions without a direct order? If you know the boss says he doesn’t like more testing, and he assures publicly that he’s serious about that, what happens when you take that at face value? That might not impact the likes of Fauci and Giroir, but what about state officials in red states who are dealing with these significant outbreaks? The president has made clear he doesn’t like bad numbers, even if it means people would not get an accurate picture of the true nature of the situation.
The best outcome, in that case, would indeed be that they understand he’s telling tales. Whether they actually do is a question with true life-or-death consequences, according to everything the health officials said Tuesday.