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400,000 cases later, Trump defends his February claim that the coronavirus was going away on its own

“Well, the cases really didn’t build up for a while.”

Trump enters the White House briefing room on April 7.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On February 23, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro addressed a memo to President Donald Trump warning that as many as 2 million Americans could die from the coronavirus. Trump wants you to believe it was never brought to his attention.

That memo and another similarly dire memo Navarro authored in January were published on Monday by Axios. Asked about them during the latest White House coronavirus task force briefing, Trump played dumb.

“I didn’t see ’em, but I heard some memos talking about pandemic [sic],” Trump said on Tuesday. “I didn’t see ’em, I didn’t look for ’em either. But that was about the same time as I felt that we should do it, that was about the same time that we closed it down.”

It’s true that by February 23, Trump had restricted travel from China. But the virus was already spreading within the United States. And Trump’s public statements belie the revisionist history he’s now offering about how he took the coronavirus seriously from the beginning.

For instance, during a news conference on February 26, Trump said, “when you have 15 [coronavirus cases], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

But instead of going down “close to zero,” the United States now has nearly 400,000 cases less than two months out from Trump uttering those words. During Tuesday’s briefing, a reporter pressed him on this point.

“When Peter Navarro did circulate those memos, you were still downplaying the threat of coronavirus in the US,” the reporter said. “You were saying things like, ‘I think it’s a problem that is going to go away within a couple of days —’”

“Which I’m right about,” Trump interjected.

The reporter continued: “You said ‘within a couple of days the cases will be down to zero.’”

Given the current magnitude of coronavirus cases in the US, you might think Trump’s comment about coronavirus going away on its own would be too much even for him to try and defend. You’d be wrong.

“Well, the cases really didn’t build up for a while,” Trump replied.

Trump later claimed that even if he had read the memo, it wouldn’t have made any difference because “I basically did what the memo said.” But he didn’t.

Navarro’s memo recommended significant immediate federal investment in personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care workers. But federal agencies largely held off on such expenditures until mid-March, when the crisis was already spinning out of control. Trump’s line on that point has been that states should’ve done more to help themselves.

If Trump really didn’t learn of Navarro’s memo until media reports about it in recent days, it’s an indictment of his administration — after all, you’d expect a top official’s conclusion that as many as 2 million Americans could die from a deadly disease would be worth bringing to his attention. But if he did see it and not only didn’t act but told the public that the coronavirus would go away “like a miracle” as he did on February 27, then in some ways that’s even worse.

What we do know is that, for whatever reason, Trump was indulging in wishful thinking during a critical period in which more proactive measures could’ve saved lives. And as a result, the goalposts have now moved to a point where Trump is preparing to tout as many as 100,000 American deaths as a win.

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