Trump’s claim has no basis in reality, though.
On a phone call with supporters, which some journalists were able to listen to, Trump said that if he had listened to Fauci, 500,000 people would have died.
“People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots, all these people that have gotten it wrong,” Trump said. “Fauci is a nice guy. He’s been here for 500 years. He called every one of them wrong.”
Trump at another point upped the numbers, saying, “we’d have 700, 800,000 deaths right now.”
Such counterfactuals are prone to abuse. How can you disprove something like that? There’s no way of knowing what would have happened if Trump followed the private advice of someone whose private advice we’re not completely privy to.
But this one’s pretty easy to debunk.
The first thing we can say is that the level of death Trump described was at least theoretically possible — but mostly in a scenario that went against what we know about Fauci’s advice.
The famous Imperial College model from the spring suggested as many as 2.2 million deaths in the United States. Trump has since used that to suggest that he prevented 2 million deaths. The model, though, dealt with a scenario in which there was precisely zero mitigation. In other words, Trump is taking credit for avoiding a complete worst-case scenario.
The comparison is also relevant when it comes to Fauci. Fauci has quite clearly advocated for more mitigation than Trump has, not less. It would logically follow that, whatever negative impact Fauci’s advice might have on the economy, it would at least have reduced mortality, relative to what we’ve seen so far. Trump is in many ways trying to have his rhetorical cake and eat it, too: saying the approaches of Fauci et al. would have both depressed the economy further and led to more death. It’s just not an argument that makes sense.
But even setting that aside, is there any conceivable scenario in which an alternative approach — any alternative approach — would have led to double or triple the number of deaths we currently have? The answer: Not if the rest of the world is any indication.
It has often been noted that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than any other country in the world. This is true, though it’s somewhat misleading in that we’re bigger than the vast majority of countries. On a per capita basis, we have the 11th-most deaths in the world (67.14 deaths per 100,000 people), according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. That’s still far from something to be proud of but not the worst in the world. We also remain behind fellow developed countries Belgium (91.17) and Spain (72.29).
But those numbers are also instructive. Approaches to coronavirus mitigation have varied widely by country, which enables us to compare the relative efficacy of various approaches. And the level of death Trump suggests Fauci’s advice would have led to is, quite simply, off the charts.
According to Johns Hopkins data, Belgium has the highest per capita coronavirus death toll among major countries in the developed world. It is exceeded only by the tiny country of San Marino (124.32 deaths per 100,000 population) and Peru (105.35).
The number of deaths Trump is floating as a potential result of Fauci’s advice, though, far outstrips any of those numbers. If there were 500,000 deaths currently, the U.S. per capita death toll would be 152.3 per 100,000 population. If it were between 700,000 and 800,000, the rate would be 213.3 to 243.8 — nearly double any other country in the world and well more than double any other major developed country.
In other words, it’s just not a serious estimate of where things could lie under virtually any real-world circumstance. And the fact that Trump is trotting out such wild numbers should reinforce just how much he has considered the situation.
The goal is clearly to discount scientists — Trump continued to attack Fauci on Twitter on Monday — and set Trump up as the only true authority on the situation. But it’s not exactly a projection that suggests anything amounting to real credibility.