The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump cites game show host on pandemic while undercutting doctors and questioning their expertise

President Trump attends a meeting in the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With tweets, impromptu interviews and unscripted remarks, President Trump has increasingly undermined the public health message of his own government, adding a sense of confusion to what has been a disjointed and ineffective response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Public health experts say Trump’s efforts to deflect blame for the surging virus have become yet another distraction making it harder to slow the spread of covid-19, the highly contagious disease caused by the virus now infecting Americans at a record clip.

On Monday, Trump retweeted a message from Chuck Woolery, a longtime game show host and conservative commentator, that accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of “lying” to the American public about the virus.

Trump in recent days has also accused Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, of making “mistakes,” blasted CDC guidelines for opening schools as “impractical,” and repeatedly undercut public health officials’ recommendations by questioning the efficacy of masks and social distancing.

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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Taken together, the president’s efforts have led to a lack of clarity and consistency in the national response to the virus, said Ben Sommers, a doctor who teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“When the president is calling the guidance wrong and endorsing the view that these public health experts are lying, it makes it incredibly difficult for the public to know what to do,” he said. “It erodes the long-term ability of our government to provide one of its basic goals which is to protect the public safety.”

As states reopen and more tests are conducted, coronavirus cases continue to ravage the U.S. The Post spoke with experts to determine what wave we’re in. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

While Trump has played down the virus and dismissed the warnings of public health experts for months, his recent push has come amid a fresh surge in cases and concern over how to safely reopen schools in the coming weeks. Trump primarily has been focused on trying to revitalize the economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic, seeing its revival as key to his reelection chances this fall.

Trump’s aides have amplified his statements promoting a return to normalcy and undermining government health expertise in the middle of a pandemic. White House officials disseminated negative talking points about Fauci to reporters over the weekend after The Washington Post reported that Fauci had been sidelined by Trump in recent weeks.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany used a news briefing Monday to defend those criticisms of Fauci and reinforce the president’s attacks on the government’s health experts. She accused “some rogue individuals” at the CDC of misleading the public and defended Trump’s retweet of Woolery by saying he was calling out scientists for engaging in politics.

“Overall, the notion of the tweet was to point out the fact that when we use science, we have to use it in a way that is not political,” she said.

Woolery was less nuanced in his tweet, writing that “the most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid 19.”

“Everyone is lying,” he continued in a post Trump shared with his 83 million followers. “The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it.”

Trump also retweeted a post from Woolery, who hosted “Love Connection” in the 1980s, pointing to “worldwide and overwhelming” scientific evidence that schools should reopen in the fall. Trump and his aides have tried to make the restart of schools a simple choice of opening or not opening. Public health experts have said that while restarting schools should be a top priority, the issue is that without proper safety measures the move could worsen the pandemic.

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Last week, the president publicly blasted the CDC guidelines for reopening schools, calling them “very tough & expensive” and “impractical” in a tweet.

Trump’s tweet — which ended with “I will be meeting with them!!!” — set off several days of confused and inconsistent responses from administration officials, who struggled to explain the government’s position on school openings, and whether anything had changed.

Vice President Pence said the CDC would issue additional guidance for schools, even as CDC Director Robert Redfield and other officials said they stood by the original recommendations but would release additional information. During an interview with CNN on Sunday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos struggled to answer basic questions about whether the federal government wanted schools to follow the guidelines.

While McEnany did tell reporters on Monday that Trump has confidence in the CDC, she spent more time criticizing health experts than amplifying their message for the public.

She repeatedly referred to the spike in positive coronavirus infections as “embers” despite the fact that states across the country are setting records for new cases and deaths are beginning to rise as well.

More than 3.3 million Americans have been infected and more than 132,000 have died, the highest known totals in the world. The administration has accused China of underreporting the severity of the pandemic within its borders.

“When you compare us to other countries, we have the most testing in the world. When you compare us to other countries on case fatality rate, other industrialized nations, we’re very low and beating most countries, if not all, in Europe,” McEnany said. “So we’re doing a lot on the world stage, and a lot right.”

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized political leaders for playing down the virus and not doing enough to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing.

“Mixed messages from leaders are undermining the most critical ingredient of any response: trust,” he said without naming any specific leaders. “If the basics aren’t followed, there is only one way this pandemic is going to go. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, but it does not have to be this way.”

The Trump administration formally notified the United Nations last week of its withdrawal from the WHO, which Trump has blamed for not doing more to stop the spread of the virus. It’s one of several institutions Trump has undercut or jettisoned during the pandemic as he has increasingly relied on his own instincts.

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But even some Republicans are calling for a more focused federal response.

Mick Mulvaney, the former acting White House chief of staff, wrote in an op-ed published Monday that the United States still has a “testing problem” and said policymakers need to realize that the “current economic crisis is public-health driven.”

“I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem in this country,” Mulvaney, who left the White House in March to become the U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland, said in the piece published by CNBC. “My son was tested recently; we had to wait 5 to 7 days for results. My daughter wanted to get tested before visiting her grandparents, but was told she didn’t qualify. That is simply inexcusable at this point in the pandemic.”

The assessment of Mulvaney is at odds with that of Trump, who has repeatedly touted the country’s testing capacity and asserted that U.S. coronavirus case levels are increasing because so much testing is being done.

On Monday, Trump again contradicted Fauci and other health officials by claiming that testing for the coronavirus was a “double-edged sword” and that the United States had “created” cases by doing so much testing.

“We test more than anybody by far. And when you test, you create cases,” he said. “So, we’ve created cases.”

Sommers said that kind of politicized rhetoric about a pandemic is “really damaging” to efforts to mount a coherent public health response.

“So much of our society right now is highly polarized,” he said. “And when you take science and do the same thing with it, it means that essentially everyone feels entitled to their own facts. From a public health side and a medical side, that’s just a tragedy.”

John Wagner contributed to this report.