The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The egregious gaslighting around Trump’s handling of the pandemic

Over the first three months of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus threat with a mix of misleading and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For the past seven months, it’s been trivial to compare President Trump’s rhetoric around the coronavirus pandemic with the actual evolution of cases and deaths. The president’s constant insistence that all is or soon will be well is the political equivalent of Leslie Nielsen standing in front of an exploding fireworks store insisting that there’s nothing interesting to be seen.

For most of those seven months, though, it’s been unclear the extent to which Trump actually believed his own hype. Did Trump actually think that the pandemic was under control, or fading, or not something that necessitated an urgent response? Or was this simply salesman Trump, trying to close a tough deal like he still has an obstructed-view walk-up on the books?

Last week’s revelation that Trump informed Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in early February about the dangers posed by the virus seemed to answer that question in favor of the latter option. Trump acknowledged that he actively chose to mislead the public about the risk, repeatedly saying that he hoped to avoid panicking the public. (A concern, mind you, that he applies selectively.) To Woodward, he said he had in fact downplayed the risk.

Likely recognizing the political danger of having taken this deceptive approach, Trump and his allies have fallen back on whataboutism as a defense. On Sunday, Trump highlighted a segment from Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld, in which Gutfeld presented various Democratic leaders and media personalities similarly downplaying the threat.

Unable to leave well enough alone, Trump took Gutfeld’s extremely generous argument further.

“I was right, these people were all wrong, and now they criticize me,” Trump wrote. “Such hypocrisy!”

This is unmitigated gaslighting. The people in the video were no more wrong than Trump in the excerpted quotes — and were subsequently far more proactive in realistically addressing the threat.

Trump was informed at the end of January that the pandemic would be “the biggest national security threat” he faced as president. Trump and Woodward spoke on Feb. 7, at which point Trump explained the risks. Yet he and his team failed to act with any sense of urgency for weeks.

“It is one of those shocks, for me, having written about nine presidents, that the president of the United States possessed the specific knowledge that could have saved lives,” Woodward told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday, “and historians are going to be writing about the lost month of February for tens of years.”

Gutfeld introduced the segment showing clips of Democratic leaders by asking viewers to “not forget who really played down the pandemic.”

The clips included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) encouraging city residents to come to Chinatown. She was responding to an increase in anti-Asian sentiment that accompanied concern about the spread of the virus.

“Come to Chinatown. Here we are,” Pelosi said on Feb. 24. “We’re, again, careful, safe and — come join us.”

The late-February definition of careful and the September definition of careful differ greatly, of course, so Pelosi’s words seem ill-advised particularly in retrospect. (One reason this clip is a staple of Trump’s rhetoric.)

But, of course, Pelosi’s words even at the time were less dismissive than Trump’s.

Two days later, Trump downplayed the virus by noting that there were only 15 cases in the United States (excluding cases stemming from people being evacuated from an afflicted cruise ship).

“The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” Trump assured the public. This prediction was inaccurate. He also said that the virus was “like a flu” — something he had specifically contradicted in his conversation with Woodward.

Gutfeld also showed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) speaking on March 2.

“We are saying what happened in other countries versus what happened here,” Cuomo said. “We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”

The pandemic has been far worse in the United States than in other countries. New York has, so far, been the hardest-hit state, but it’s also one of the success stories in having — for now — largely stamped out new infections.

But, again, Trump saying that Cuomo was wrong based on that comment while he was right? Obviously ludicrous.

Three days after Cuomo offered those comments, Trump was interviewed by Fox News.

“We have only right now 11 — it’s a lot of people, but it’s still 11 people, versus tremendous numbers of thousands of people that have died all over the world,” Trump said. “We have 11. We have 149 cases as of this moment. This morning, it was 129. And I just see you — right now, it’s about 149 cases. There are 100,000 cases all over the world. So we’re really given tremendous marks for having made the decision. And that was a decision I made to close down the borders.”

As of this writing, about a fifth of all cases and a fifth of all deaths from the virus globally have occurred in the United States, which has 4.3 percent of the world’s population.

Gutfeld also included a March 4 snippet from CNN.

“Half the people in America do not get a flu shot, and the flu, right now, is far deadlier,” host Anderson Cooper said in the segment. “So if you’re freaked out at all about the coronavirus, you should be more concerned about the flu.”

This isn’t even incorrect! The flu was, at that moment, much deadlier given how broadly it had spread. What Cooper didn’t do in the segment is suggest that the flu would remain deadlier than the coronavirus.

But Trump did, nearly a week later.

The last snippet Gutfeld showed was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) speaking on March 10.

“For the vast majority of New Yorkers,” de Blasio said, “life is going on pretty normally right now. And we want to encourage that.”

This was, in fact, bad advice. De Blasio went on to add that “we cannot shut down because of undue fear” — although if the city had shut down earlier than it did in late March, thousands of lives would likely have been saved. (How might de Blasio defend the comments? He could always say that he was trying not to induce panic.)

What was Trump saying at the time? Well, he spoke to reporters on March 10 after meeting with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it,” Trump said. “And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

“We want to protect our shipping industry, our cruise industry, cruise ships,” he added. “We want to protect our airline industry — very important. But everybody has to be vigilant and has to be careful. But be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”

In fact, a lot of bad things happened in fairly short order.

Gutfeld, who promotes himself as a comedian, summarized the clips he showed.

“So you think there’s a little transference going on here to get you to ignore their own idiocy?” he said. “They want you once again to set your hair on fire over Trump’s words. But I won’t, because offensive things said privately?” he added, referring to the Woodward interview. “It’s not news.”

“But these idiots see off-the-record words as bigger than deeds,” he said later, “redefining private conversations as breaking news when it’s just breaking wind.”

Flatulence joke aside, it’s worth noting that the interview with Woodward was on the record. He addressed his conversations with Trump during an interview on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, including a conversation in August in which Trump said that “nothing more could have been done” to address the pandemic.

“Nothing more could have been done?” Woodward said. “Does he remember what he told me, back in February, about, it’s more deadly than the flu? I mean it almost took my breath away, that there was such certainty, when he was absolutely wrong about the issue that defines the position of this country right now.”

Or, to hear Trump tell it, how right he was all along.