Since Trump less frequently submits to interviews with more skeptical reporters, it was predictable that a significant chunk of the president’s town-hall-style interview on NBC News would focus heavily on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, something that his friends at Fox generally handle with kid gloves. Trump himself seemed to predict the line of questioning, so he came prepared with charts detailing the relative effectiveness of what his administration had done.
Unfortunately for him, though, the information he was holding itself came from the Fox News universe. Literally.
NBC’s Savannah Guthrie challenged Trump on his indifferent approach to wearing a mask, a tool that has proved to be effective at combating the spread of the virus. Trump dropped a wildly misleading assertion about the effectiveness of mask-wearing before pivoting to a defense of how the United States has fared relative to European nations.
“Look at what’s going on in Europe: massive spikes,” Trump said. “They’ve done a very good job, but now you take a look today at the U.K., you take a look at Spain and France and Italy, there’s tremendous spikes — ”
“But our death rate is worse than — well, not Spain, but those other countries,” Guthrie interjected.
“Well, I have,” Trump began rifling through papers sitting next to him — “I have things right here that will tell you exactly the opposite.”
He held up a sheet of paper.
“So the U.K. is up 2,500 percent — because I knew you’d be doing this. I know you very well,” Trump said, looking up briefly from the document he was holding. “The U.K. is up 2,500 percent, the E.U.’s up 722 percent, and the United States is down 21 percent."
On the surface, this seems like a compelling point. But, of course, it lacks context. Up and down from what? What’s being measured?
Luckily, we can answer that question because we know the source of Trump’s numbers: Laura Ingraham’s Wednesday Fox News show. Trump was holding a printout of a still from a YouTube video from Ingraham’s show and rattling off the large numbers it depicted.
The chart was part of a segment on Ingraham’s program that night titled, “Biden and the covid experts, exposed” — referring to former vice president Joe Biden and government experts battling covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“When you think about it, Joe Biden really has only one argument for his presidency that even attempts at cutting through,” Ingraham said as the segment began, “and it would be that he is better at handling covid.”
She aired a clip of Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), arguing that Biden advocates listening to scientists on the pandemic instead of, say, cable-news hosts.
“There are a number of countries in Europe that listened to those same scientists who advocated widespread lockdowns,” she said, “and the results in Europe are a spectacular disaster.”
“If you care about daily cases,” she continued, “the U.K. has soared past the U.S., and the E.U. is close.”
On-screen, Trump’s graphic.
We don’t learn much more from this chart than what Trump showed. It’s data from Our World in Data, looking at the seven-day rolling average of new cases relative to population. But compared to what?
With a little poking around, we can answer that question: relative to Aug. 1. It’s a comparison between that date and the Wednesday numbers from the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Why Aug. 1? Well, almost certainly because it was a date near the peak in daily cases and daily deaths in the United States. It’s a bit like arguing that the country had recently done a good job reducing the number of major storms making landfall two weeks after Hurricane Sandy.
It’s also useful to compare current data to Aug. 1, because, on Aug. 1, the average number of new cases in Europe was at about 8,000 and in Britain, about 600 — compared with the United States’ 64,000. As a function of population, the metric Ingraham uses, the United States’ case totals on that day were 11 times the European Union’s. On Wednesday, the E.U. was still seeing fewer per-capita cases than the United States, a point that Ingraham failed to raise.
A central point here is that the increases in the European Union (and, to a lesser extent, Britain) were so large precisely because those places had done a much better job controlling the virus. Europe implemented broad measures aimed at containing the virus, actions that Ingraham pooh-poohs — and largely contained the virus. Ingraham is doing the equivalent of bragging about how well a city that has had 50 murders a day had done fighting crime since a city that had been at a steady 5 murders a day recently spiked to 30. That’s a 600 percent increase! Terrible, compared with the recent 2 percent drop in Murderville from 50 to 49 murders each day.
Ingraham used Aug. 1 as well so that she could make this comparison.
Again, this is because fewer people were contracting the virus in Europe and Britain and, therefore, fewer were dying. She also shifts here from per-capita numbers to raw ones, exaggerating the effect.
If you’re curious, on Wednesday, the day of Ingraham’s show, the United States was averaging more deaths on a daily basis than the European Union and Britain combined, on both a raw and per-capita basis. Ingraham also touted that the number of people who had died of covid-19 in the United States was a smaller percentage of total cases than in the E.U. or Britain — which is entirely a function of the massive case numbers the United States saw over the summer, after medical experts had learned more about effectively treating covid-19.
Ingraham reached her conclusion.
“The obvious conclusion from the European experience is that lockdowns only delay the inevitable,” Ingraham claimed. “A few months ago, the airheads in the media were freaking out about the Sun Belt covid surge. Remember that? Well, look at them now.”
She showed case totals drops in Texas, Arizona and Florida, adding a dramatic, “Wow.”
The second surge to which Ingraham is referring lasted from June 11 to Sept. 8. Over that period, nearly 25,000 people died in those three states.
It’s all spin, aimed at precisely what Ingraham outlined at the outset: undermining Biden’s insistence on following expert advice and, therefore, bolstering Trump’s seat-of-his-pants approach. So it’s not surprising that the argument appealed to Trump. He undoubtedly watched the program, as he often does, and heard Ingraham’s claims. Sounds good, he apparently thought. Someone handed him a sheet with her numbers, and off he went to the NBC News event. Armed with his printout, he was ready for battle.
So, too, was Don Quixote.
Trump has at his disposal decades of experience in battling public health crises and aggregated data that could provide an accurate sense of how the country’s effort to contain the virus is faring. But that’s not the sort of thing in which Trump immerses himself, preferring the friendlier and more supportive universe of Fox punditry.
On Thursday, he brought that world with him to battle a reality-based journalist. It didn’t work very well.