Don’t focus on the 200,000 people the coronavirus might kill in the U.S., think about the 2 million people President Donald Trump is saving.
Even as Trump adopts a somber, get-ready-for-the-worst tone, he has still sought to portray himself as a hero for his actions thus far, batting away questions about whether he has adequately responded to the coronavirus outbreak.
“What would have happened if we did nothing?” the president asked Tuesday night.
Like many of Trump’s rhetorical questions, he had already answered it himself — millions would die. Starting on Sunday, Trump began touting a scary figure that his staff had shared with him as it created models to judge the outcome of the coronavirus pandemic — 2.2 million deaths. That was the government’s latest upper-end estimate of how many Americans might die if nothing was done to prevent the spread of the disease — no social distancing, no business closures, no banning of mass gatherings.
Over the next three days, Trump mentioned the number over 20 times in his daily briefings, often to illustrate the success of his efforts thus far to curb the coronavirus.
“Think of the number — potentially 2.2 million people if we did nothing, if we didn’t do the distancing, if we didn’t do all of the things that we’re doing,” Trump said Sunday.
“I thought about it,” Trump conceded. “I said, ‘Maybe we should ride it through.’”
Instead, with the current measures in place — including federal guidelines recommending extreme social distancing through the end of April and travel restrictions for various global hot spots — the death toll is expected to fall between 100,000 and 240,000, according to the government model. Yet Trump has only mentioned the actual expected death totals roughly 10 times since Sunday, calling the figure “sobering” and “horrible” but a victory when compared to the 2.2 million figure.
“If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 …. we all, together, have done a very good job,” he said.
It was a notable change in posture after Trump initially signaled optimism about the virus and said in late February that cases would soon “be down close to zero.”
And it reflects the latest messaging campaign as Trump, backed by his aides and surrogates, argue that the administration’s actions are responsible for saving lives.
Trump and the White House have repeatedly pointed to the president’s decision in late January to close most travel from China, where the coronavirus originated, as having lowered the number of predicted casualties from as high as 2.2 million to as low as 100,000. Other moves, such as the administration’s social-distancing guidelines and further travel restrictions on Europe and South Korea, have also pushed down the potential fatalities, they say.
“It was those numbers that were presented to the president, taking into account the measures we had done before, the fact that the president suspended all travel from China in January,” Vice President Mike Pence said on CNN on Wednesday.
Trump on Wednesday also painted himself as the savior of a testing system that has lagged in the first few months of the coronavirus outbreak, as states have struggled to process coronavirus tests in a timely fashion. Trump has argued — inaccurately — that Obama-era guidelines prevented the swift approval of commercial coronavirus tests, and said that he came along and changed them. He has also falsely claimed that World Health Organization coronavirus test kits were bad tests and that the U.S. has developed better ones.
“We inherited bad tests. These are horrible tests. And it was broken, it was all broken and we fixed it,” Trump said.
The Trump administration on Friday also approved a new rapid coronavirus test and is currently determining where to deliver those tests. Senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday argued that the move was among several Trump had made that would “save lives and mitigate damage to the Americans.”
“I mean it would take years in the past to get approval for things like that,” she added.
Conway’s argument comported with White House talking points sent this week to allies and the media. The talking points highlighted the president’s efforts to increase hospital capacity and expand the healthcare workforce, as well as a Federal Emergency Management Agency project that aims to quickly airlift critical supplies across the country.
Trump’s critics and public health leaders counter that while these moves may be helping, they are far from enough. And they note that the projected 100,000 death toll assumes widespread adherence to the current extreme social-distancing guidelines until June. Not every state has formally adopted these emergency rules, and compliance with voluntary guidelines has varied. In addition, Trump so far has only called for them to stay in place until the end of this month.
“Fortunately, no amount of gaslighting and lying will change the facts because the world has the receipts,” Kyle Morse, a spokesperson for the progressive political group American Bridge, said in a statement. “Donald Trump ignored medical experts and belittled the threat for months, and on TV and Twitter, Trump has served as a deadly, one-man disinformation machine.”
In recent days, Trump and his team have started explaining that the early, hopeful assessments were a function of the president’s positive outlook.
“I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus,” Pence said Wednesday on CNN. “The president is an optimistic person. … And what the American people can see in this president every day is a leader who knows that we will get through this.”
Later in the interview, Pence also brought up the figure Trump has latched on to: 2.2 million.
“Some of the initial estimates even in this modeling suggest that without every American [mitigating], that we could have literally seen between 1.6 million and 2.2 million losses,” he said. “But the president also wanted to make it clear that our most recent modeling suggests that with strong mitigation, the range is still heartbreaking when we think about the lives that could be lost.”
He added: “Our message over the next 30 days, is the future is in our hands.”