Unlike many Americans who are worried about contracting or spreading the coronavirus, President Donald Trump has yet to be seen in public wearing a mask. He even went without one during his visit on Tuesday to a Honeywell facility in Arizona that otherwise requires them. The White House’s (flawed) rationale for this is that Trump doesn’t have to because he and everyone he comes into contact with is tested for the virus.
In this respect, the White House is operating with one safer standard for officials, and another less-safe standard for the “warriors” Trump is now urging to go back to work in the teeth of a pandemic. This disparity was put on stark display on Wednesday.
“The notion that everyone needs to be tested is simply nonsensical,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during Wednesday’s press briefing, in response to a question from NBC’s Peter Alexander about why all Americans can’t get tested like the president before they go back to work.
Those comments came hours after Trump appeared in the Oval Office with a group of nurses who weren’t wearing masks or social distancing — basic safety precautions they said weren’t necessary because they had all been tested for the coronavirus before meeting with the president.
Here's a nurse who met with Trump on Wednesday discussing how everyone who meets with the president gets tested for coronavirus, followed hours later by Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying applying that same standard of testing to the American public is "nonsensical" pic.twitter.com/Eb1nIuFDkU— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 7, 2020
McEnany didn’t argue that more testing wouldn’t be a good thing. Her argument was that testing on the scale Alexander suggested would be impractical because “if we tested every single American in this country at this moment, we’d have to test them an hour later and an hour later after that, because at any moment you could theoretically contract this virus.”
While testing all 328 million Americans every hour is obviously more than can be asked for, some experts do think that everyone needs to get tested on a regular basis in order for some sense of normalcy to be restored. My colleague German Lopez has detailed perhaps the most aggressive and prominent of these proposals:
Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has projected that the US needs more than 20 million tests each day, effectively letting the country test each person in the country every two weeks. He estimated that would cost $100 billion — which may sound like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the cost of keeping the economy shut down.
Coincidentally, news that broke on Thursday about one of Trump’s personal valets testing positive for the coronavirus serves as a good example of how testing can help stop the spread. CNN reported that since the valet had been in direct contact with Trump, following the positive test, both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were administered coronavirus tests that came back negative.
Testing of that sort helps trace the virus’s spread. But because of inadequate capacity, it continues to be extremely difficult for people who don’t have symptoms to get tested, even though they play a key role in spreading the coronavirus.
Not only is the US nowhere near conducting the 20 million tests a day that Romer recommends, but it’s nowhere near conducting the 500,000 or so that experts who are more modest about testing think is necessary to safely reopen businesses. Right now, on a good day, the US is conducting about half that, or 250,000 tests, according to information gathered by the Covid Tracking Project.
Trump is not interested in engaging with this problem. He’s regularly contradicted public health experts in his own government by insisting, falsely, that states already have more than enough testing capacity to reopen businesses and schools. But the reality is there hasn’t even been enough tests for all 100 US senators to be proactively screened or for professional sports franchises to procure them.
Instead of deploying the almost unlimited resources of the federal government in the hope of solving the problem, however, Trump has largely delegated the testing problem to cash-strapped states, while telling brazen lies about how US testing stacks up compared to other countries. He even alluded to self-interested motives for resisting demands to expand the country’s testing capacity on Wednesday, telling reporters that “if we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”
Trump has political reasons for wanting to keep the known number of coronavirus cases in the country as low as possible, but it seems a very different set of rules apply to him.
It makes sense — even if it’s not 100 percent foolproof — that the White House is screening people who come in contact with the president. In addition to keeping the president healthy, it allows him to not wear a mask and in that way project a sense of normalcy to Americans, many of whom aren’t leaving their homes these days without one.
But Trump is only able to do that because the White House has testing abilities that the rest of the country doesn’t. To use the military metaphors Trump is accustomed to, the general is sending his “warriors” into battle without the intelligence needed to know where the “invisible enemy” is hiding.