President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Friday amid his administration's push to control the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus first observed in China. But in a press conference during that visit, Trump did little to help Americans understand the government’s response to the virus, instead spreading misinformation while using the public health crisis for self-aggrandizement.
The president spent much of the press conference working to convince the public his administration has the coronavirus under control, something that does not appear to be the case.
For instance, while it is unclear how many people have been infected by the virus due to a delay in testing, it has become increasingly clear in recent days that there are Americans infected with the virus across the country. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States has more than doubled in the past week, and as CNN’s Ryan Struyk reported, at least seven states — Minnesota, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Kentucky, Nebraska, Hawaii, and Utah — reported their first Covid-19 cases following Trump’s CDC visit.
Yet during the press conference, Trump dismissed any criticism against the government’s handling of the virus, stressing in particular the availability of Covid-19 tests.
“As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test [can have one], that’s the important thing, and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect,” Trump said, seemingly referring to the White House transcript of his call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in which he requests an investigation into his political rivals.
"The [coronavirus] tests are all perfect. Like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect. This was not a perfect as that, but pretty good." -- is Trump referring to the transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president here? pic.twitter.com/FU5XxPTu7Z— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 6, 2020
That call was, of course, not perfect, and helped lead to the president’s impeachment — and the tests have not been perfect either.
There have been three main problems with the US government’s coronavirus tests: the first batch, distributed in February, is believed to have had a faulty reagent leading to inconclusive results; once that issue was corrected, there was not enough CDC capacity to test the kits that had been sent out (leading the center to open up testing to state-level facilities), and there aren’t currently enough tests to go around.
Several states have been pushing the CDC for more Covid-19 test kits, and have criticized the government for its slow response in making more tests available. New York, where there are more than 70 confirmed cases, cannot meet the demand for testing because it doesn’t have enough tests, according to Raul Perea-Henze, the New York City deputy mayor for health and human services.
“With multiple positive cases, NYC needs maximum testing capacity to enable successful implementation of the public health strategies that best protect New Yorkers,” Perea-Henze wrote in a letter Friday, requesting more testing kits. “The slow federal action on this matter has impeded our ability to beat back this epidemic.”
California simultaneously does not have enough kits to test all those at risk of having been infected, and does not have the lab capacity to process all of the tests it has already run. Lab technicians have been working 18-hour shifts in order to try to work through a testing backlog, but have been unable to do so. In Los Angeles County, commercial laboratories will begin processing tests on Monday, which is expected to help alleviate this issue.
But not all states have the resources California and New York do — while they were able to send tests to state-run labs after the CDC began allowing them to do so, some states, including Maine, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, do not currently have the capacity for in-state testing.
The government has tried to respond to mounting criticism about the shortage of testing kits. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised to increase supply, saying 1.5 million tests would be made available. So far, however, the actual number of tests being administered fails to live up to that promise — as of Friday, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the CDC had distributed enough tests for 75,000 people, and partnered with a private firm to distribute material for 700,000 additional tests.
Trump’s CDC presser confirms everything people were worried about if Covid-19 hit the US
Even before the recent uptick in US-based Covid-19 cases, critics of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response argued the administration was disorganized and ill-equipped to combat Covid-19. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has written, the president was slow to put someone in charge of the coronavirus response efforts — and when he finally did, he selected Vice President Mike Pence, someone who failed in his responses to public health crises while serving as governor of Indiana, according to experts. And there were also concerns Trump’s efforts to cut CDC funding — and the size of the administration’s initial coronavirus budget — might have limited the government’s ability to fight the virus effectively.
But experts have argued the biggest issue with the administration’s coronavirus response so far is, as former director of the USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance Jeremy Konyndyk told Vox’s Alex Ward, Trump has “made it primarily about himself.”
And this concern was on display at the CDC press conference when Trump took time to talk at length about his own intelligence, in part by referencing a “great, super genius” uncle who taught at MIT.
“I like this stuff. I really get it,” Trump said. “People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors say, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.”
Here's Trump rambling at length about how smart he is and how well he understands public health pic.twitter.com/1Co6MaRkzl— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 6, 2020
Trump’s public response, however, is a reminder of how he has recently put his public health knowledge into question. During a White House meeting on Monday with pharmaceutical executives and public health officials, Trump displayed his ignorance by pushing for a vaccine to be developed in a few months (something he has promised the public will happen) — even though that’s just not how it works.
And he went on to express confusion as to why pharmaceutical companies can’t release the drugs they are currently working on immediately, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar reported:
Trump pressed the pharmaceutical leaders on why they can’t just release the coronavirus drugs their companies are working on tomorrow — in the process revealing that he doesn’t understand the concept of clinical trials.
“So you have a medicine that’s already involved with the coronaviruses, and now you have to see if it’s specifically for this. You can know that tomorrow, can’t you?” he said.
“Now the critical thing is to do clinical trials,” explained Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead Sciences, which has two phase-three clinical trials going for remdesivir, a potential treatment for the coronavirus. “We have two clinical trials going on in China that were started several weeks ago ... we expect to get that information in April.”
Hours after learning about how vaccines work and the timeline for a potential coronavirus vaccine, Trump told supporters at a rally: “We had a great meeting today with a lot of the great companies, and they’re going to have vaccines I think relatively soon. And they’re going to have something that makes you better, and that’s going to actually take place we think even sooner.”
It isn’t clear why Trump said this, particularly after seemingly having been disabused of his misconceptions in his White House meeting, but such a statement does not support his claim at the CDC that “I understand that whole [scientific] world.”
Nor did the president’s CDC visit allay concerns about a lack of coordination between officials. If anything, it added confusion to an already tumultuous — and potentially dangerous — situation.
For example, the Trump administration has been offering a variety of answers to the question of whether the country is experiencing a shortage of test kits (it is). On Thursday, Pence said, “We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” according to The Hill.
Trump, however, had a completely different message as he boasted of the US’s testing capabilities in Atlanta on Friday, saying, “Anybody who needs a test gets a test. ... They have the tests and the tests are beautiful.”
This left Pence with the difficult task Friday of attempting to bring his factually correct messaging in line with the president’s incorrect statements.
“I think for any American that’s symptomatic, speaking to your doctor, if you have reason to believe that you have been exposed to the coronavirus, I have every confidence that your physician would contact state health officials and have access to the state lab,” Pence said at a White House briefing. And this, unlike Trump’s statement, is closer to the truth — the CDC revised its testing guidelines on Wednesday, allowing primary physicians to conduct testing in concert with local authorities. Whether local labs have the ability to process those tests, or if those tests are even available, however, remains a matter of concern.
Although we’ve grown used to the Trump administration’s frequent inconsistency in messaging, it becomes dangerous in times like this, when transparent communication is key in helping contain a disease and keep trust in the government strong. And Trump’s tendency to self-aggrandize is not helpful in a moment that calls for collaboration and creating an apolitical environment.
Trump continues to politicize the Covid-19 outbreak
In fact, perhaps the most concerning aspect of the CDC conference was how it gave us a glimpse into Trump’s view of the coronavirus as a political rather than health-based issue.
During his remarks, Trump said he would rather have the passengers of the Grand Princess, a cruise ship docked in San Francisco with 21 confirmed cases onboard, stay on the ship than move to land — all because doing so would raise the number of total Covid-19 cases in the US.
“I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault. And it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn’t their fault either and they’re mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I’d rather have them stay on, personally.”
"I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship" -- Trump explains that he doesn't want to let people off the Grand Princess cruise ship because he doesn't want the number of coronavirus cases in the country to go up pic.twitter.com/ELhZDjiZW9— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 6, 2020
Trump’s comment suggests a grim reality: that keeping the number of Covid-19 cases low is more important to him than the actual people who have the disease — all because he wants to avoid the political fallout of a growing case count.
And that wasn’t the only political moment during the conference — he also took time out to praise Fox News for its ratings, attack CNN as “fake news,” and smear Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — who was praised by Pence for his work in fighting the spread of Covid-19 — as a “snake” who wants to “take advantage” of the administration’s kindness.
Trump smears Jay Inslee, governor of the state at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak: "I told Mike [Pence] not to be complimentary of the governor, because that governor is a snake." pic.twitter.com/zfraPiqmGI— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 6, 2020
These sort of attacks undercut the seriousness of the situation — and they also draw attention toward Trump and away from the coronavirus itself. And they come at a time when the virus needs more attention than ever.