Trump’s obsession with numbers — both publicly and privately — has dominated and shaped the administration’s response to the coronavirus, as advisers and public health experts try to placate a leader who largely views the global pandemic through the political lens of how the statistics reflect on his presidency and hopes for reelection. This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen administration officials and other observers, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
He wants market numbers up, and he wants case numbers down. Trump is a man who has measured much of his life in numbers — first wealth, then crowd size and votes, and now unemployment and economic numbers — while saying relatively little about the human suffering caused by the coronavirus crisis.
“The numbers from a week ago were great, from two days ago were great — but now we’re hitting a patch,” Trump said Wednesday during a meeting at the White House with Wall Street bankers. “And we’re going to have to do something with respect to … getting rid of this virus as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”
Asked Tuesday by reporters at the Capitol if he had been briefed that up to 100 million Americans could ultimately be exposed to the virus, Trump again returned to the numbers.
“I’ve been briefed on every contingency you can possibly imagine, many contingencies,” the president said. “A lot of positive. Different numbers. All different numbers. Very large numbers. And some small numbers too, by the way.”
Trump’s tendency to minimize the threat has stood in marked contrast to leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who during a Wednesday news conference in Berlin warned that the majority of her citizens could face infection.
“When the virus is out there, the population has no immunity and no therapy exists, then 60 to 70 percent of the population will be infected,” Merkel said.
Privately, administration officials are trying to get Trump more comfortable with the idea of an inevitable rise in the number of coronavirus cases — in part by explaining to him that a higher number of cases overall could potentially result in a lower mortality rate. Sharing the growing number of cases might also demonstrate that many of those who test positive are asymptomatic or only have mild symptoms, a senior administration official said.
Trump is increasingly coming to accept that the number of individuals who have tested positive for the virus is going to rise, even though he’s not happy about it, the official added.
Officials on the White House coronavirus task force have privately predicted to journalists that cases are going to increase exponentially in the coming days and weeks. The goal, they say, is to telegraph to the public what is almost certain to come so that it is not a shock, all without angering Trump or sounding alarmist.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams offered an example of such messaging on Sunday, when he told CNN that the time for containment measures had passed.
“Now, we’re shifting into a mitigation phase, which means we’re helping communities understand, you’re going to see more cases,” Adams said. “Unfortunately, you’re going to see more deaths, but that doesn’t mean that we should panic.”
Nonetheless, many officials and experts have remained concerned that the administration is treating the virus more as a political communications problem than a public health one, and continuing to downplay the numbers.
Some White House officials focused on public communications have tried to argue to outside experts that a portion of the cases across the country are from people who recently traveled to Europe — another epicenter of the outbreak — and less so from the spread between individuals in U.S. communities. One outside public health expert said he was skeptical of the administration spin but understood the goal was to sell the public on the idea that the virus numbers are not spreading as fast as some fear.
Trump has also asked for data presentations comparing the new coronavirus with seasonal influenza, a White House official said, and has frequently expressed surprise on how deadly the flu can be. Touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, Trump said he “didn’t know people died from the flu,” which according to the agency has killed 12,000 to 61,000 people in the United States annually since 2010. In fact, Trump’s paternal grandfather died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
And on Monday, the president tweeted, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Trump’s suggestion that the coronavirus is less serious than the common flu is contradicted by the administration’s own top health experts.
Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci described the virus as “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
“This is a really serious problem that we have to take seriously,” Fauci said, deploying the sort of specific statistics Trump has generally eschewed. “People always say, well, the flu does this, the flu does that. The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This has a mortality of 10 times that. That’s the reason I want to emphasize we have to stay ahead of this.”
One senior administration official involved in the response said the obsession with numbers is selective. The president and some members of the task force, for instance, are eager to continually update and release statistics related to diagnostic tests because they will only increase and that reflects positively on the response.
But there has been more hesitation to provide Trump with numbers related to the climbing number of cases because the president views those numbers as alarmist and damaging to the economy.
“On diagnostic kits — those numbers only move up, but they move up for the right reasons,” the senior official said. “The case numbers move up, but that only serves to cause pandemonium.”
The president also regularly receives data on a range of scenarios for how the virus could progress — and almost always seizes on the most optimistic numbers, seeming to ignore or tune out the higher numbers, officials said.
“If one doesn’t want numbers because it makes someone look bad, that’s not a good use of the numbers,” said Jonathan Fielding, a professor of public health policy and management at University of California at Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. “If numbers help better track a response, that’s certainly reasonable. But obviously concerns about numbers looking bad — concerns about that is not the use of metrics that helps a situation.”
During his Friday CDC visit, Trump’s focus on how the numbers would play for him emerged yet again when he said he would rather have passengers remain on the Grand Princess cruise ship — which was facing a coronavirus outbreak — than come ashore and add to the existing case count.
“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.”
Trump’s comments were so striking that on Monday, Democratic Massachusetts Sens. Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren wrote to Vice President Pence asking, among other things, “Has the President instructed or implied to you or other Task Force members that your goal should be to misleadingly limit the reported number of cases in the United States by (1) refusing entry into the United States for infected citizens to reduce the number of reported cases or (2) any other means?”
The president has also obsessed over the gyrating financial markets, which he and his team view as crucial to his 2020 reelection bid. At his private Mar-a-Lago Club this past weekend, Trump told donors that the Dow Jones industrial average — which plunged below 24,000 on Wednesday — would be at 30,000 if it weren’t for the coronavirus driving down the numbers, attendees present for his remarks said.
Trump also decided Monday to appear at the regular coronavirus task force press briefing only after watching stock market numbers tumble all day, a senior administration official said. The original plan was for him not to speak, but he changed his mind after spending the day watching cable news coverage of the falling markets.
“The number of covid-19 cases rising and the stock market dropping are what’s keeping Trump up at night,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. “What should be keeping him up is the avalanche of bad economic data that will begin showing up in about a month.”
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.