Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House, was asked about the study during a news briefing the following day.
“I think, you know, models are models. And they’re based on input, and they’re based on infectiousness without any controls,” she replied. “I can tell you we’ve never seen that level of infections that modeled up to that 2.2 million in mortality.”
At that same news briefing, President Trump and the task force announced a two-week period during which Americans would be asked to focus on social distancing and slowing the spread of the virus. By the end of that two-week period, it was clear that more needed to be done. So, on March 31, the White House announced that it was extending its recommendation that Americans stay at home for another month.
In defense of that announcement, Birx pointed to data from a group of researchers, including from Imperial College London, detailing how high the toll could have been and where the administration hoped it would land instead.
“In their estimates,” she said, “they had between 1.5 million and 2.2 million people in the United States succumbing to this virus without mitigation. Yet, through their detailed studies and showing us what social distancing would do, what people — what would happen if people stayed home, what would happen if people were careful every day to wash their hands and worry about touching their faces, that what an extraordinary thing this could be if every American followed these. And it takes us to that stippled mountain that’s much lower — a hill, actually — down to 100,000 to 200,000 deaths — which is still way too much.”
From a political perspective, it was clear what the White House was doing. The number of cases and deaths was starting to climb, so the administration — justifiably — sought to remind Americans how bad things could have been. On more than a dozen occasions in one briefing, Trump pointed to those potential millions of deaths as not only a worst-case scenario but as evidence of how well his administration had done in containing the virus.
What Trump really hoped for, clearly, was that the number of deaths would land well below even the lower end of the less deadly scenario range. For weeks, Trump insisted that the country would not see many more deaths than it had already suffered. On April 10, as he was beginning to push for scaling back the restrictions aimed at limiting that death toll, he said the country was “headed to a number substantially below the 100,000.”
The United States passed the 100,000-death mark on May 28. As of July 20, nearly 140,000 people have died, with more than 60,000 new cases recorded each day. The final toll remains unclear.
What’s certainly not the case, though, is that the administration’s actions saved anywhere near 3 million lives, despite what White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed Tuesday.
Defending the push to shutter economic activity to contain the virus, McEnany insisted it was “the right decision to make.”
“The president,” she said, “saved 3 to 4 million lives.”
Watching Trump slowly inflate the same figure over the past few months, it’s not surprising that McEnany would adopt the exaggerated figure as an official White House data point.
“So they said between 100 and 220,000 lives on the minimum side,” Trump said on April 10, “and then up to 2.2 million lives if we didn't do anything.”
That was less than two weeks after Birx’s presentation to reporters in which she announced that figure as the upper end of the range offered by the researchers with whom she had been speaking — a figure that, again, was an outer bound that she herself had said seemed too high in March.
But Trump kept pushing it up.
“Models predicted between 1.5 million and 2.2 million U.S. deaths,” Trump said on April 16. “If there was no mitigation, it could have even been higher than that,” he added, although the 2.2 million figure was explicitly derived from a scenario with no mitigation, as Birx said at the time.
On May 1, Trump said, “We could save 2.1, 2.5 million lives, depending on what happens.”
On May 19, Trump insisted: “We did the right thing. We would have lost millions of lives if we didn’t.”
Two days later, a new high.
“We saved millions of lives. Millions and millions of lives,” Trump said. “You would have had anywhere from a million-five to two million-five, three million lives.”
In an interview on June 22, he tacked on another million.
“If I wouldn’t have done what I did, we would have had 3 or 4 million lives lost as opposed to 112— 115,000, which is far too many,” he said.
“We could have lost anywhere from 2 to 4 million people, as opposed to where it is now, which is probably 115,” Trump continued — it was 118,000 — “but it could get, you know, a little bit higher than that.”
During an event last week, he rolled that back by a million, claiming that it “could be — a number that we're actually working on — but it could be 2 to 3 million lives.”
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising part of that comment, of course, is that the White House is “working on” developing a hard figure representing the number of lives saved. In March, it rejected 2.2 million as too high. Accepting that figure as instead an inevitable worst-case tally, the number of lives saved to date is a bit over 2 million.
Though, of course, the alternative depended on doing literally nothing. It’s like saying that by not letting a dam collapse you deserve credit for saving the populations of the towns downstream. In this case, it’s also like insisting that you deserve all of the credit for the dam staying up despite how that success was also a function the downstream towns working together to reinforce it. After all, it was early stay-at-home orders in states such as California that prevented the number of cases from surging everywhere in early April.
An email to McEnany asking for the source of the figure wasn’t answered before publication. It seems likely that, at some point, the White House will attempt to justify it and, further, that the figure will become an integral part of Trump’s reelection defense.
So it’s worth remembering that, when first presented with the Imperial College estimate of 2.2 million dead, the White House’s task force coordinator rejected it as excessive.