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‘Maybe I have a natural ability’: Trump plays medical expert on coronavirus by second-guessing the professionals

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump spoke to reporters during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump likes to say that he fell into politics almost by accident, and on Friday, as he sought to calm a nation gripped with fears over coronavirus, he suggested he would have thrived in another profession — medical expert.

“I like this stuff. I really get it,” Trump boasted to reporters during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he met with actual doctors and scientists who are feverishly scrambling to contain and combat the deadly illness. Citing a “great, super-genius uncle” who taught at MIT, Trump professed that it must run in the family genes.

“People are really surprised I understand this stuff,” he said. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”

But for members of the general public alarmed by more than 300 diagnosed cases in the United States — including at least 21 that his administration announced Friday were discovered on a cruise ship off the San Francisco coast — Trump’s performance during an impromptu 45-minute news conference at CDC was not necessarily reassuring.

Sporting his trademark red 2020 campaign hat with the slogan “Keep America Great,” the president repeatedly second-guessed and waved off the actual medical professionals standing next to him. He attacked his Democratic rivals — including calling Washington Gov. Jay Inslee a “snake” for criticizing his response — and chided a CNN reporter for smiling and called her network “fake news.”

And he described coronavirus testing kits — which his administration has been criticized for being slow to distribute — as “beautiful” and said they were as “perfect” as his Ukraine phone call last summer that led him to be impeached.

Mapping the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. and worldwide

The upshot was that the self-proclaimed medical savant came off looking less interested in his administration’s unsteady efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus than he was in bolstering his own status in a campaign year. Trump repeatedly sought to judge his administration’s performance by the numbers of how many have been shown to have contracted the virus and comparing it to other nations — and, in doing so, appeared to be making judgments based solely on that scorecard.

President Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) commented on the Grand Princess cruise ship and overall travel amid the novel coronavirus outbreak on March 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

He declared he would prefer to keep the thousands of passengers and crew on the cruise ship off the California coast aboard the vessel rather than bring them ashore for quarantine, though he acknowledged that Vice President Pence and other top aides were arguing for the ship to be brought to port.

“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need the numbers to double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” He had been furious last month upon learning that Americans in China with coronavirus were flown back to the United States in a decision made by the State Department without consulting him.

Asked if a decision had been made about the latest ship’s fate, Trump appeared uncertain. “Uh, that’s a good question,” he responded. He later said he authorized his aides to decide — and Pence announced at a news briefing in Washington shortly after the president concluded his remarks that the ship would, in fact, be directed to a noncommercial port where everyone on board would be tested.

For the president, the reporters’ follow-up questions about the rate of coronavirus testing were a nuisance. CDC Director Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar stressed that the administration had authorized tens of thousands of testing kits to be distributed. But as Azar sought to parry with a reporter by calling on Redfield to back him up, Trump, without looking at Azar, raised his right hand and waved him off.

21 people test positive for coronavirus on California cruise ship

Redfield said the agency had sent out 75,000 kits. Then Trump jumped in: “Anybody who wants a test will get a test, that’s the bottom line.” A few moments later, he jokingly compared the situation to his phone call last summer in which he had pressured Ukraine’s president to launch an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son.

“The tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect, right?” Trump said. “This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.”

Trump argued that the death rate in the United States — 15 Americans have died of the virus, though Trump said 11 — remains artificially high because many people who have the illness are not reporting to hospitals because their symptoms are minor. While experts have said that is probably true, the argument seemed to undercut Trump’s efforts to minimize the scope of the crisis.

While explaining this, Trump appeared irritated by the reaction of a reporter. “You’re smiling when I say that. Where are you from?” he asked. When she replied CNN, the president snapped: “I don’t watch CNN. That’s why I don’t recognize you. I don’t watch CNN because CNN is fake news.”

The medical professionals around him smiled uncomfortably.

The president had a more positive reaction to Fox News. While explaining he had watched the network’s coronavirus coverage aboard Air Force One en route from Nashville — where he had toured tornado damage earlier in the day — to Atlanta, Trump cut himself off.

“How was the show last night?” Trump asked a Fox reporter in the room, referring to a Fox News-produced, town hall-style event in Scranton, Pa., that he had participated in the night before.

“Did it get good ratings?” Trump said. The reporter said he didn’t know. “Oh, really?” Trump continued. “I heard it broke all ratings records. But maybe that’s wrong. That’s what they told me.”

As his aides did their best to curry Trump’s favor — they praised his leadership and sought to reinforce some of his pronouncements — the president opined on the falling stock markets, insisting he is happy that Americans are canceling travel plans abroad to “stay in the United States and spend money in the United States.”

Though his CDC trip had been canceled over a coronavirus scare at the agency — before being reinstated after the employee tested negative — Trump boasted that he was taking no special precautions while touring the labs.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m not a person who has been big on handshaking. They used to make fun of me. But as a politician, you walk in and the doctors have their hands out, ‘Hello, sir.’ That’s my business. I never thought I’d be a politician. But I feel very secure.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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