President Donald Trump has evolved on the coronavirus pandemic.
The president spent the first six weeks of the outbreak insisting that the situation was under control. He even characterized Democratic criticism of the federal government’s response, which has been lowlighted by an inability to test sufficient numbers of people for the virus, as “their new hoax.”
But this week, as the number of cases — and the death toll — rises and the economy looks increasingly bleak, Trump’s tone has shifted. In a notable development, Trump took a calm and measured tone during Monday’s press conference, deferring to experts on scientific questions and outlining the government’s social distancing guidelines.
“My administration is recommending that all Americans, including the young and healthy, work to engage in schooling from home when possible, avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people, avoid discretionary travel, and avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants, and public food courts,” Trump said.
That the president is taking the outbreak seriously is certainly a step in the right direction. If people listen to Trump and follow experts’ advice, that may actually save lives.
But Trump is also interested in seizing the narrative of the pandemic now, attempting to frame himself as a president who competently handled the crisis, even referring to himself in Wednesday’s press conference as a “wartime president.”
He’s also trying to erase his early rhetoric and response. Trump proclaimed during Tuesday’s press conference that “I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
CNN ran a segment Wednesday highlighting the disconnect between Trump’s public statements now and what he’s been saying the past six weeks. Trump fired off this tweet a short time later: “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China - against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”
I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the “borders” from China - against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2020
It’s good that Trump is now taking the Covid-19 pandemic seriously, but it is simply not the case that he did so from the start. His own actions and public statements demonstrate this.
As the media continues to cover the story, it’s important to hold the president accountable for his actions — and inactions. Trump lost valuable time ignoring expert calls to act. He also actively spread misinformation. Real people’s lives were harmed and we shouldn’t forget it. Here’s a look back at Trump’s evolution over the two months.
Trump gutted the government’s pandemic response capability and then downplayed the seriousness of an ensuing pandemic
As my colleague German Lopez detailed last week, two years ago Trump and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton disbanded a White House agency that was set up by the Obama administration to lead federal preparation and coordination for outbreaks like the one the world is now trying to contend with.
But during a news conference last week, Trump pretended he had no involvement in that decision, saying, “I didn’t do it. We have a group of people ... I don’t know anything about it.”
.@Yamiche: You said you don't yet responsibility for any failures, & yet you disbanded the pandemic response team. What do you say to criticism of that?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 13, 2020
TRUMP: "I just think it's a nasty question ... I didn't do it. We have a group of people ... I don't know anything about it." pic.twitter.com/PGRY0kI6uh
When he wasn’t insisting that the buck stops elsewhere, Trump was telling the public that coronavirus was really nothing to worry about. As the coronavirus spread in China and the first US case was reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on January 21, Trump was asked during an interview with CNBC on January 22 if he had any worries about the situation escalating into a pandemic. He said he did not.
“No, not at all. We have it totally under control,” Trump said. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
That comment set the tone for Trump’s remarks about the coronavirus until this Monday, when — as the stock market endured one of its worst days in history and the country entered a lockdown posture to stop the virus’s spread — Trump finally started to talk about the situation with the seriousness it deserves.
The change in tone was remarkable considering how dismissive Trump had been about the coronavirus before then. During an interview on February 2, for instance, Trump alluded to the move his administration announced in January to restrict entry into the country from China and said, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” But by that time cases were already spreading inside the country. Then, 10 days later, Trump made the scientifically dubious assertion that “you know in April, supposedly [the virus] dies with the hotter weather.”
“One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” Trump said. (Unfortunately, research indicates it doesn’t quite work like that.)
Trump even expressed hope that the coronavirus would go away before winter ended. During a news conference on February 26, he noted there were only five coronavirus cases in the country and said “we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time.”
But despite issues with testing preventing the full scope of infection in the US from being known, by the end of February the number of cases in the US had broken 60 and instances of community spread had been recorded. Trump, however, ignored those problems and cited his “hunch” to make a case that the coronavirus death rate is lower than official estimates coming from organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO).
Perhaps most memorably, Trump closed out February with a rally in which he dismissed criticism of the government’s testing failures coming from Democrats and elsewhere as “their new hoax.” After receiving criticism for it, Trump quickly tried to walk it back — but in the days that followed he misleadingly hyped a coronavirus vaccine even as experts were telling him it wouldn’t be available for a year or more.
On March 6, Trump proclaimed during a tour of the CDC in Atlanta that “anybody right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test gets a test.” Trump’s claim was false then and false now: The US continues to lag far behind other countries in testing capability.
This is how behind the U.S. is in coronavirus testinghttps://t.co/b3uofYfkfD— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 17, 2020
As recently as March 7, Trump was telling reporters he was “not concerned” about coronavirus’s spread because “we’ve done a great job.” Ironically, he made that remark during a summit with Brazilian leaders at Mar-a-Lago that culminated in at least four people who were there testing positive for the virus. Two days later, Trump posted a tweet in which he undersold the coronavirus threat by misleadingly comparing it to the common flu, which is less deadly and spreads less easily.
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
So instead of treating the coronavirus “very seriously,” Trump actually spent weeks downplaying it. The Recount put together this helpful video tracking Trump’s dismissive comments with the spread in the United States.
Today, @realdonaldtrump said: “I’ve always known this is a pandemic. I’ve felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic ... I’ve always viewed it as serious.”— John Heilemann (@jheil) March 17, 2020
Really??? Let’s roll the tape. pic.twitter.com/NpUTzGiokW
Something seemed to change for Trump toward the end of last week — a week in which the WHO officially declared coronavirus to be a pandemic as the number of cases and deaths in the United States mounted and the financial markets tanked.
Trump declared coronavirus to be a national emergency last Friday — days after the national address when many thought he would — and then began this week with a news conference in which he discussed new federal guidelines about what people should do to slow the spread of coronavirus. That was followed by the news conference on Tuesday in which Trump claimed “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic” and his Wednesday morning tweet on the same theme.
The president is telling people the right thing now, but he spent a long time telling them the wrong thing
To be clear: The president finally treating coronavirus with the seriousness it deserves is a good thing. He finally seems to realize he can’t bluster his way out of this one and is giving the public responsible advice.
But it’s also worth remembering the steps Trump took to dismantle America’s pandemic preparedness capabilities during his first three years in office, as well as dismissive comments he made more recently that may have resulted in people not taking the proper precautions.
With the US economy spiraling into a possible recession, the number of cases domestically still increasing exponentially, and the number of deaths surpassing 100 — and all of this happening as the president tries to campaign for reelection — Trump has good reasons to try to get people to believe he’s taken the coronavirus seriously all along.
But the truth of the matter is he didn’t. And as a result, the country was less prepared for what it’s now dealing with than it could’ve been.