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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump, coronavirus truther

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, President Trump spent nearly two months repeatedly and consistently downplaying the threat. But by March 16, the health officials around him had apparently persuaded him to adjust his tone. In a news conference announcing significant federal guidelines to combat the virus, Trump said: “It’s bad. It’s bad.” He even backed away from his previous claims that the virus was “under control.”

In the ensuing weeks, Trump would repeatedly call the virus the “invisible enemy,” and he would compare it to the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.

But today, despite the resurgence of coronavirus cases in many parts of the country, 27 straight days of record cases and rising positive test rates, Trump has all but abandoned this kind of language. Over the last month, he has rarely if ever acknowledged the actual danger of the situation. And the lack of caution from the commander in chief is increasingly conspicuous when compared to GOP officials in the hardest-hit states.

A review of Trump’s public commentary on the virus reveals precious little in the way of a reality check for a country confronting a surge in cases. He has instead again focused like a laser on downplaying the pandemic — suggesting the rise in cases is merely a symptom of increased testing (it’s not), questioning the efficacy of and need for wearing masks, and repeatedly suggesting the virus isn’t so bad after all.

It all culminated Saturday in Trump declaring that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless” — a statement that bears no resemblance to what health officials have said. This forced Trump’s allies to try to inject some reality into the situation without being seen as directly disputing the president.

State and local leaders expressed concern about coronavirus in their states, a day after President Trump called "99 percent" of cases "harmless." (Video: The Washington Post)

Here’s a sampling of what Trump has said in spoken comments and tweets:

  • June 17 ahead of his rally in Tulsa: “If you look, the numbers are very minuscule compared to what it was. It’s dying out.”
  • June 18: “America is better supplied and more prepared to [reopen] than, I would say, just about any other place.”
  • June 21: “Our Coronavirus testing is so much greater (25 million tests) and so much more advanced, that it makes us look like we have more cases, especially proportionally, than other countries.”
  • June 25: “So when you do 30 million, you’re going to have a kid with the sniffles, and they’ll say it’s coronavirus — whatever you want to call it. … In some cases, it’s people that didn’t even know they were sick. Maybe they weren’t. But it shows up in a test.”
  • June 25: “Our Economy is roaring back and will NOT be shut down. ‘Embers’ or flare ups will be put out, as necessary!”
  • July 1: “I think we are going to be very good with the coronavirus. I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope.”
  • July 2: “There is a rise in Coronavirus cases because our testing is so massive and so good, far bigger and better than any other country.”
  • July 4: “By so [so much testing], we show cases — 99 percent of which are totally harmless — results that no other country can show because no other country has testing that we have, not in terms of the numbers or in terms of the quality.”

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About the closest Trump has come to urging caution or offering a grim assessment in recent weeks actually came before the recent surge, on June 5, when Trump said: “Think of it. With a pandemic, and with one of the worst things that’s ever happened, our country has never lost 105,000 people — whether it’s World Trade Center, which was 2,900, or Pearl Harbor, which was less than that. We’ve never lost anything close to this.”

On June 15, he lamented this has been “a very perilous time” for nursing homes. But he blamed the situation on states rather than the federal response. Likewise, in the same speech, Trump acknowledged spikes in cases in prisons, but he used it to suggest the increases in cases that had begun to crop up in states like Texas were less than met the eye.

“I spoke with the governor of Texas, where they’ve done a fantastic job, and he said they have had some outbreaks in prisons, and that’s where their numbers went [up]," Trump said. “And the numbers changed a little bit because of the prison population. But he’s got it in great shape, Texas. Florida is doing very well. And Georgia is doing very well.”

Needless to say, it wasn’t just the prisons that were the problem in Texas. When Trump uttered these words, Texas had about 2,000 new coronavirus cases per day, on average. That number is now around 7,000. The number of current hospitalizations has risen from 2,000 to more than 8,000. The percentage of positive tests — a key number in assessing whether testing is adequately measuring the spread — has gone strongly in the wrong direction, from 6 percent to 13.5 percent.

It has all led Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to join many other Republicans in hard-hit states to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. Abbott on Thursday even announced a mask mandate for most Texas counties.

“Covid-19 is not going away,” Abbott said in a video. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for covid-19.”

Abbott added: “We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error.”

Trump’s comment that Texas was “in great shape” has now been utterly disproved, as has his claim that Florida “is doing very well.” (Florida went from around 2,000 daily cases when Trump said this to more than 10,000 today. Its positive test rate has gone from 5 percent to nearly 20 percent.)

None of this, though, has caused Trump to even so much as acknowledge the danger in these situations. In comments Thursday at the White House, he described such “hot spots” as “temporary” — again suggesting they could one day simply disappear.

“Our health experts continue to address the temporary hot spots in certain cities and counties. And we’re working very hard on that,” Trump said.

In those comments, he also referred to covid-19 as a “horrible disease” — only to, two days later, claim it was “totally harmless” to 99 percent of people.

What’s particularly striking about Trump’s continued refusal to warn people about the virus is how diametrically opposed it is to the views of his officials. They recognize that, in order for people to take serious steps to deal with the virus, they need to be told that it’s a serious situation. If people are being told their outbreaks are only “temporary” and that there’s a 99 percent chance that absolutely nothing adverse will happen to them if they contract the virus, how will most of them react?

It’s hardly a proud moment for Abbott to change course on a masks mandate or to acknowledge, as he did, that perhaps his state shouldn’t have opened up things like bars as quickly as it did. But he has calculated that it’s needed to avert a disaster. Abbott is playing the long game, recognizing that his handling of this won’t be judged on momentary headlines, but on the long-term trajectory of the virus in his state.

That’s a calculation Trump has rarely made, if ever, for reasons that are continually perplexing.