From the start, the focus was on Trump’s admission to Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, in a new book, that he had deliberately downplayed the coronavirus threat. Also at issue was his acknowledgment to Woodward, very early on, that he understood the true danger of the virus, which he said was much deadlier than the flu, before he would spend weeks comparing it to the flu.
Trump’s most jaw-dropping claim was that he actually “up-played” his response.
“I didn’t downplay it,” Trump said. “I actually — in many ways I up-played it, in terms of action.”
The first issue is that Trump admitted he downplayed it — deliberately. “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down,” Trump told Woodward on tape on March 19. Trump added: “Because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Despite having admitted that and then denying it Tuesday night, Trump turned to the idea that downplaying it — or at least urging calm — was actually a good thing. He cited a comparison to Winston Churchill that he rolled out a few days ago.
But while Churchill did indeed urge calm about the German advance in World War II, fact-checkers and historians have noted he was also blunt about the “remarkable” nature of the threat.
Trump went on to argue that perhaps Churchill wasn’t honest about things — which, again, the historical record disputes — and seemed to draw a comparison to himself.
“I don’t think that’s being necessarily honest, and yet I think it’s being a great leader,” Trump said.
ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos noted the comparison, however warranted, suggested Trump like Churchill hasn’t been honest about the true threat. Apparently understanding the corner he had backed himself into, Trump backed off the comparison.
“I’m not looking to be dishonest; I don’t want people to panic,” Trump said.
The asymmetric comparisons didn’t end there. At another point, Trump criticized Joe Biden for calling for a mask mandate. But in doing so, he spoke about his Democratic opponent as if he actually had the power to implement such a thing.
“I will say this: They said at the Democrat convention, they’re going to do a national mandate,” Trump said. “They never did it, because they’ve checked out and they didn’t do it. And a good question is you ask, like, Joe Biden — they said we’re going to do a national mandate on masks.”
Stephanopoulos noted Biden called on governors to implement the mandate.
“He didn’t do it,” Trump responded. “He never did it.”
Trump was, at best, inarticulately referring to Biden qualifying his call for a national mask mandate. But even conservative media reports that suggested Biden had walked it back noted the fact that, when he first proposed it in mid-August, he urged governors to do it, saying, “Every governor should mandate mandatory mask-wearing” for a period of three months.
Even that proposal was one that Biden, as a candidate who doesn’t hold elective office, obviously had no power to actually implement.
Another key exchange came after Trump had claimed the United States had done better than a lot of other countries. Stephanopoulos noted that, on a per capita basis, the United States is worse off than the rest of the world in terms of cases and deaths.
Trump at one point suggested the case number is inflated by our superior testing regime. That’s a highly suspect claim, given the slow rollout of testing here. It also ignored that deaths are disproportionately high.
But Trump’s most puzzling reply came when he suggested this was a symptom of the size of our country.
“We also have a very big country — we’re talking a lot bigger than most countries,” Trump said.
Except the chart Stephanopoulos had just showed him was on a per capita basis — deaths per million residents.
Stephanopoulos also confronted Trump with his past comments on the Chinese response and its leader, Xi Jinping, which Trump repeatedly praised early on before turning against them in recent months.
Asked whether he got it wrong, Trump wouldn’t concede the point — but also, remarkably, suggested he said such things because of trade negotiations and he had merely taken Xi’s word for it.
“I don’t think I did,” Trump said. “We just finished a trade deal. … I didn’t say one way or the other. I’m not saying one way or the other. At the beginning, before anybody knew what it was, I spoke with President Xi, and he said, we are doing it well, we have it under control. And I was very open with that. He told me that it was under control, that everything was, and it turned out to be not true.”
It bears noting this was at the same point in which Trump was privately warning about the danger of the virus while publicly downplaying it. Trump vouched for Xi, without attributing such assurances to Xi. And the idea an American president would just take China’s word for it runs counter to Trump’s claim to be so tough on China and on top of the ball on the coronavirus.
All that doesn’t exactly resemble the picture Trump has sought to paint of himself as a calm, tough leader at the helm of the coronavirus response — or his broader presidency.