NBC’s Savannah Guthrie offered the follow-up that this Trump talking point has long begged for: “Isn’t there a middle ground?”
Trump said there wasn’t: “No, no. No, there’s not a middle ground.”
The moment was a crystallizing one when it comes to Trump’s response, as if he truly didn’t see something between “It will disappear” and “Everybody’s going to die.”
But it also came at a particularly troubled time for Trump’s past pronouncements — a time in which one of his biggest efforts to dismiss the threat looks increasingly foolhardy: his insistence that the virus wouldn’t be that bad come the fall and winter.
In the spring, health officials occasionally warned of an extremely challenging fall and winter, as the cold weather pushed people back indoors and the coronavirus merged with flu season. That warning now appears pretty prescient, with a significant jump in U.S. coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks — the total daily cases just surpassed 64,000 for the first time since late July — and an even bigger surge in Europe.
But back then, it was a prospect that Trump had very little time for. Indeed, he made a big show of playing down even the mere possibility.
On April 21, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield was quoted in The Washington Post saying that the fall and winter season could “actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.” Trump blew up, claiming Redfield had been “misquoted.” He even brought Redfield to the White House briefing room to try to dispute the story, although Redfield ultimately confirmed the quote was accurate.
Amid the bizarre scene, Trump repeatedly suggested not only that there was almost no chance the virus could be as bad in the fall and winter as it was then; he also played up the idea it might not return at all.
“Corona could be just some little flare-ups that we’ll take care of,” Trump insisted. “We’re going to knock it out. We’ll knock it out fast.”
Trump added: “In my opinion, from everything I’ve seen, it can never be like anything that we’ve witnessed right now.”
“And if it does come back, it’s not going to come back — and I’ve spoken to 10 different people — it’s not going to be like it was,” Trump said.
Trump leaned into the idea over and over again that it might not come back at all.
“And you may not even have corona coming back, just so you understand,” Trump said.
Redfield “doesn’t know that it’s going to, and neither do I,” Trump said, adding: “But we may have some embers — and we’re going to put them out — of corona.”
“Doctor, wouldn’t you say there’s a good chance that covid will not come back?” Trump asked coronavirus task force member Deborah Birx. “And if it does comes back, it’s in a very small, confined area that we put out.”
Trump was pressed on saying it might not come back at all.
“I didn’t say it’s not,” he said. “I said if it does, it’s not going to come back on anything near what we went through.”
It remains to be seen whether the situation in the fall or winter might ultimately be as bad as things were at the time Trump spoke, but it’s clearly not outside the realm of possibility (as Trump suggested), and what we’re seeing today is certainly far from “little flare-ups” in “very small, confined areas.”
The 64,000-plus daily cases is more than twice the number of daily cases when Trump spoke on April 22. That in large part is because of increased testing, but the test-positivity rate is climbing again, meaning the present increase can’t be attributed just to more testing.
The daily average death toll today remains shy of 1,000, while it was around 2,000 back then. Again, this suggests the number of cases is the result of increased testing, rather than more infections. But deaths can be a lagging indicator. And hospitalizations have notably risen 6.7 percent in the past week — another key data point suggesting the problem is getting worse as the weather gets colder.
In addition, 44 states and the District of Columbia are reporting more cases than they did a month ago, suggesting this is far more than just “embers” in a few places.
Perhaps the more worrying trend when it comes to what lies ahead, though, is what’s happening across the Atlantic Ocean. Europe is seeing what experts call “exponential increases” in cases, and one World Health Organization official warned that by January, daily deaths could be “four to five times higher than what we recorded in April” (which was the previous peak for deaths). Officials say the colder weather is a significant factor.
That doesn’t mean what’s happening there will necessarily happen here. Indeed, the courses of the virus have differed. Europe had the biggest early spikes, but then the United States far surpassed it for months on a per-capita basis, as much of Europe appeared to have things under some control.
What Europe is experiencing now is pretty clearly a second wave. To the extent that United States isn’t experiencing one, it owes to the fact that the first wave never truly disappeared and cases remained steadily much higher than in Europe for the entire summer.
But Trump spoke as if the virus would inevitably disappear or be much more under control during the summer months, with a few problems potentially cropping up come fall and winter. The reality is far, far different.
And the fact that Trump expended such energy to dismiss even that possibility is a case in point when it comes to how focused he was on playing down the threat, despite the warnings of officials like Redfield. Indeed, Trump seemed to view such dire warnings as somehow a personal attack on him or a political liability.
It certainly speaks to how a more middle-ground approach to his public pronouncements was probably advisable when it came to preparing people for what could lie ahead.