At times, Trump has treated the situation with the seriousness it obviously demands. In March, he advocated a broad closure of the economy to limit its spread. More recently, he warned of the expansion of the virus in a number of Sun Belt states, weeks after that expansion was underway. These, though, are the exceptions. Even as health advisers like Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah L. Birx are raising louder alarms about the virus’s current course, Trump has returned to his default position: all is well — or, at least, all is as well as it could be.
Consider the president’s recent public pronouncements about how things are going. There was his tweet over the weekend undercutting congressional testimony from Fauci in which the country’s leading infectious-disease expert attributed the surge in new cases to a failure to robustly shut down the economy — or, really, to keep things shuttered.
“Wrong!" Trump replied. “We have more cases because we have tested far more than any other country, 60,000,000. If we tested less, there would be less cases. How did Italy, France & Spain do? Now Europe sadly has flare ups."
That pairs with other tweets, including one Monday morning, claiming that things are as bad in other countries as they are in the United States.
“With the exception of New York & a few other locations, we’ve done MUCH better than most other Countries in dealing with the China Virus," he wrote. “Many of these countries are now having a major second wave."
All of this is deceptive. The number of cases is independent of the number of tests, of course, just as the number of speeding cars is independent of the number of speeding tickets. How did Italy, France and Spain do? After seeing initial surges in cases (and, sadly, in deaths), they managed to get the virus under control. That’s the same pattern that was seen in New York, but not in the United States broadly or in a number of large states.
Over the past month in Spain, the number of new cases has increased fivefold — but the country is now seeing only 2,300 new cases a day on average, compared to the United States’ 62,000. That’s about 50 new cases for every million people in Spain versus more than 190 for every million Americans. And Spain is an exception, not the norm. Trump also pointed to a new outbreak in a region of Australia, where the number of new cases is again five times what it was a month ago.
The country is now seeing about 430 new cases per day on average, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, about 18 per million residents.
Here we see Trump relying on his favorite rhetorical tactics: using anecdotes to rebut obvious trends, and doing so inconsistently. He has waved away the massive surges in new cases in Florida and Texas as nonrepresentative “embers" of the virus’s presence, while claiming that the outbreak in the Australian state of Victoria is a “[b]ig China Virus breakout” in a place “thought to have done a great job."
Victoria has been averaging 482 new cases per day over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins, 73 per million residents. Of Florida's 67 counties, three (Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach) are currently averaging more daily cases than Victoria saw in the past 24 hours. Sixty-six of Florida's counties are seeing more cases each day on average as a function of population. In Texas, there are four counties with more cases and 187 of 254 counties with more cases as a function of population.
Those are all, according to Trump, places with “big breakouts."
Birx, the administration's coordinator of its coronavirus response, acknowledged the reality of the situation in an interview on Sunday.
“What we’re seeing today is different from March and April,” Birx said to CNN’s Dana Bash. “It is extraordinarily widespread. She cautioned Americans to understand that the virus could spread even in the rural areas that had seemed fairly immune several months ago.
Birx has been under fire, including from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), following a New York Times report indicating that she’d helped promote the idea within the White House that the pandemic was waning in the United States. It’s an incontrovertible point, given how often in March and April that Birx offered public assessments of the virus clearly at odds with publicly available information. We documented flaws with her overly sunny claims on March 27, April 6 and April 16, for example. Her willingness to appease Trump’s personal desires, including to facilitate the reopening of businesses, was perhaps illustrated best during a briefing on May 22, in which Birx three times told America that it was okay to resume playing golf. Trump hit the links the next day for the first time since March.
What thanks did Birx get for finally acknowledging the reality of the situation on the ground? An attack from Trump.
Again, it's true that Pelosi and others criticized Birx for being “too positive" about the spread of the virus. To Trump, overstating good news about what's happening is a requirement of the job, one which Birx's new cautionary tone fails to uphold.
“Trump, who had spent his entire presidency learning that he could say whatever he wanted without consequence, assured Americans that 'the coronavirus is very much under control,' and 'like a miracle, it will disappear,'" The Atlantic's Yong wrote about Trump's early response to the virus. “With impunity, Trump lied. With impunity, the virus spread."
What's most alarming about Trump's renewed insistence that all is well is that he continues to use that misleading assertion as a rationale for moving forward with his advocacy for resuming in-person school attendance over the next few months.
“Cases up because of BIG Testing!" he wrote on Monday. “Much of our Country is doing very well. Open the Schools!"
The rationale here is obvious, as obvious as it was in April when Trump began demanding that businesses reopen. He’s worried about his reelection, which he has tied tightly to the strength of the economy. (In another Monday tweet, he touted the gains on Wall Street.) Keeping schools closed makes it hard for businesses to reopen at full strength, something he desperately wants to happen before Nov. 3.
But the point is entirely that in many places, the virus isn't doing well and that reopening schools risks spreading the virus more quickly.
“Across America right now, people are on the move," Birx said Sunday on CNN, pointing a subtle finger at the administration’s push to scale back containment efforts several months ago. One risk of allowing children to return to school is that the same mistake will be repeated, trading containment for person-to-person interaction.
That risk has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent days: Broad transmission of the virus among children at a camp in Georgia. A school reopening in Indiana that resulted in an immediate shutdown after a student tested positive on the first day. A powerful testimonial from a schools superintendent in Arizona facing a mandate to reopen.
“There’s no way it can be safe," Jeff Gregorich told The Washington Post. “If you think anything else, I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy. Kids will get sick, or worse. Family members will die. Teachers will die."
Gregorich, Trump would no doubt tell us, is simply being insufficiently positive.