The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump actually doesn’t appear to understand how bad the pandemic is

President Trump speaks with Jonathan Swan on “Axios on HBO.” (Axios/HBO) (Axios on HBO)

President Trump came prepared, or so it seemed.

When he sat down for an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan last week, Trump held a number of loose sheets of paper, each with a graph that, he clearly believed, showed how well the United States has done in combating the coronavirus pandemic. He had a graph showing the number of tests completed in the United States, for example, a soaring line rising above other countries tallying the tens of millions that have been conducted over time. Another had a simple bar chart, four colored rectangles demonstrating his administration’s success.

These were the emperor's clothes, and he was proud of them. But Swan, given one of the few opportunities for a non-sycophant to interview the president, revealed them for what they were. Trump was left fumbling, unable to rationalize his repeated claims that all was well. Because, of course, it isn't.

“Right now, I think it's under control,” Trump said at one point. “I'll tell you what—”

“How? A thousand Americans are dying a day,” Swan interjected.

“They are dying, that's true. And you ha— It is what it is,” Trump replied. “But that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can. It's under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.”

“You really think this is as much as we can control it? A thousand deaths a day?” Swan said.

“I’ll tell you, I’d like to know if somebody—” Trump began, then switched directions. “First of all, we have done a great job.”

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He then went into his standard patter about ventilators and protective equipment. This has emerged as a standard defense mechanism for the president: What he’s done is the best that could have been done, and nothing he hasn’t done would have been useful to do until such time as he does it. The number of tests completed is an unalloyed success, although the slow ramp-up in testing allowed the virus to spread without detection for weeks this spring, spurring massive numbers of deaths. To Swan, Trump blamed this on his having taken office without there being a test for the virus — a virus that emerged in humans more than two years after Trump became president.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump has repeatedly said that the virus will disappear. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Even within the confines of Trump's bounded successes, though, it quickly became apparent that he didn't have a grasp on what was happening with the pandemic. He was holding numbers in his hands, but didn't understand what they showed and, importantly, what they didn't.

“Right here,” he said at one point, showing Swan a chart, “the United States is lowest in— numerous categories, we're lower than the world.”

“Lower than the world?” Swan asked. “What does that mean?"

“We're lower than Europe,” Trump continued. “Take a look. Take a look. Right here.”

He handed Swan the sheet of paper, allowing the reporter, at least, to actually understand what Trump was claiming.

“Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases,” Swan said. “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etcetera.”

“You can't do that,” Trump replied.

“Why can't I do that?” Swan asked.

“You have go by—” Trump continued, fumbling with his papers. “You have to go by where— Look, here is the United States— You have to go by the cases of death.”

“It's surely a relevant statistic,” Swan said a bit later, “to say if the U.S. has X population and X percentage of death of that population versus South Korea—”

“No, you have to go by cases,” Trump interjected.

“Well, look at South Korea, for example. Fifty-one million population, 300 deaths,” Swan said. “It’s like— it’s crazy.”

“You don’t know that,” Trump replied, suggesting that South Korea was perhaps hiding its true death toll. Which, of course, is nonsense. South Korea’s case totals and death toll are low because it tested often and early, containing the virus during the spring and stamping out new occurrences as they arose. This is also a reason that the country has not had to do as much testing: it has far fewer possible cases to sort out.

But back to Trump’s broader point. What he’s doing is focusing on mortality rate, the ratio of deaths to cases. Why is he focused on that to the exclusion of everything else? Because a month ago, that was the only metric on which the United States was faring well. Cases were surging in the South and West, but deaths, which trail infections by several weeks, were still heading down. So the administration began focusing on the ratio between those two metrics since it made the United States seem as if it was faring particularly well. If one country has 100 new cases and five deaths a day, its mortality rate is 5 percent. If the United States has 100,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths, its mortality rate is only 1 percent. Ergo: a success!

In this interview, as in so many others, Trump tried to use the number of tests being conducted as both a success — look what we’ve cobbled together! — and as a point of frustration. (Once again, he claimed that the country has more cases because it has more testing, as though other countries have hundreds of thousands of asymptomatic cases that they simply ignore.) But that huge number of detected cases is the only reason he can point to mortality rate as anything even remotely positive.

Swan’s point, of course, is that having 470 out of every million Americans die of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, reflects a far worse situation than South Korea seeing six out of every million residents die. You can’t make that comparison, Trump insists — for no other apparent reason than that it makes the situation in the United States look appropriately dire.

Anyway, it's nonsensical. Earlier in the interview, Trump had similarly pointed to proportional effects from the virus when it suited his needs.

“There's never been anything like this,” Trump said. “And by the way, if you watch the fake news on television, they don't even talk about it. But, you know, there are 188 other countries right now that are suffering— some proportionately far greater than we are.”

The example he used was Spain, which he said was “having a big spike.” Spain has been averaging 2,600 new cases a day over the past seven days and five deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The United States has seen nearly 60,000 new cases per day and a bit over 1,000 deaths. Looking at those number as a function of population — which Trump endorses here — we see that Spain is seeing 56 new cases per million residents each day and 0.1 deaths, compared to 184 cases and three deaths in the United States.

Swan kept pressing Trump on the death toll, with Trump insisting that the numbers were heading down.

“Where it was is much higher than where it is right now,” Trump said.

“It went down and then it went up again,” Swan pointed out.

“It spiked, but now it's going down again,” Trump insisted. “It's going down in Arizona. It's going down in Florida. It's going down in Texas.”

“It's going down in Florida?” Swan asked.

“Yeah, it's going— it leveled out and it's going down,” Trump replied. “That's my report as of yesterday.”

Trump is right that the national number of deaths per day is lower now than it was in the spring. But he’s wrong, as Swan pointed out, that deaths in Florida have declined. The interview took place on Tuesday of last week; the day prior, the seven-day average of new deaths in the state was 124, compared to 126 the day before that, functionally equivalent. Compared to the prior Monday, the average was up 8 percent — and deaths have increased by a third since then.

The number of new cases in Florida had done what Trump suggested, flattening and then dropping. This is a seemingly minor distinction, but a revealing one: pressed to discuss how the pandemic was faring, Trump grasped at a good, unrelated number instead of engaging on the bad one Swan was highlighting.

It’s clear that Trump wasn’t prepared for this interview. The question that follows is why. Was it simply that, after months of doing almost no interviews besides overtly friendly ones on Fox News, he was unprepared to be challenged on basic points? Or, more alarmingly, was it that he didn’t actually understand the scope of the pandemic that his team insists is the central focus of his time?

On Tuesday morning, Politico published an article looking closely at how the White House operates under its new chief of staff, former North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows. One White House staffer who spoke with Politico’s reporters said that Meadows and his team were protecting Trump from bad political news.

“I don’t know if they’re giving him the whole picture,” the official said, calling the group “Kool-Aid drinkers.”

The Swan interview certainly suggests that someone is keeping Trump from understanding what’s actually happening with the pandemic. The odds are that the person who is doing so is Trump.

After all, it is what it is.