Trump Returns to the Coronavirus Daily Briefing and Still Refuses to Face Reality

President Donald Trump arrives for a news conference at the White House

Donald Trump spent much of his coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday trying to persuade Americans that the coronavirus has little to do with them, or with him, except as a cause for self-congratulation. Within the first two minutes, he had referred twice to “the China virus”; he then immediately emphasized the advanced age and preëxisting illnesses of those who had died—most young adults “won’t even know they’re sick”—suggesting that we now know, as if we didn’t before, who “the vulnerable” are, and so the rest of the country can go back to doing other things. Other issues, such as covid-19’s ability to ravage the health of even those who survive it, the many ways that people of all ages can be vulnerable, and the difficulty of sheltering anybody when infections are rampant, were shunted aside. Most of all, Trump wanted everyone to know that we are winning. “We’re leading the world,” he said, which is true only if the destination is off a cliff.

Trump’s appearance was billed as his return to heading coronavirus-task-force briefings; those appearances were more or less discontinued in late April, as part of Trump’s effort to pretend that the crisis was over. In contrast to those early appearances, Trump was alone, with no public-health officials to answer questions or provide a modicum of realism. When a reporter asked, “Why are your doctors not with you here today? Where’s Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx?” Trump replied, “Well, Dr. Birx is right outside,” then quickly called on someone else. (Deborah Birx, the coördinator of the task force, stayed outside; Anthony Fauci told CNN that he wasn’t invited to the briefing.) The reason for the renewal is obvious: the number of new confirmed infections has grown to more than sixty thousand a day, and the charts of the number of cases in states in the South and West, led by Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, show increasingly sharp rises to precipitous heights. Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp is engaging in something akin to deciding to let his constituents die by trying to block local governments from mandating masks, is also registering alarming numbers. (Last week, when Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, defied him, Kemp sued to stop and silence her; that litigation is pending.) In all those states, hospitals are filling up.

Increased testing does not explain the numbers; the percentage of tests that are coming back positive is above ten per cent in the worst-affected states, which, given the current numbers, is far too high for epidemiologists to be confident that most cases are being caught. (Roughly speaking, in the current circumstances, a lower positivity rate means that fewer marginal or asymptomatic cases are missed; testing is not confined to those who show up at hospitals. In New York, the current positivity rate is around one per cent.) Around the time that Trump spoke, the daily tally of deaths exceeded a thousand for the first time since late May, and the total number of confirmed deaths in the United States now exceeds a hundred and forty thousand—almost a quarter of the planet’s total covid-19 fatalities.

Trump, though, still thinks he’s doing great. At the briefing, he displayed a chart claiming that the “case fatality rate”—generally, deaths per laboratory-confirmed cases—for the United States was lower than for a string of other countries and the world as a whole. But, in the absence of comprehensive testing, that number is not viewed as the most reliable measure of the pandemic’s toll. The chart for deaths per hundred thousand inhabitants would look different. By that measure, according to Johns Hopkins University’s numbers, the United States is among the worst affected, with forty-three dead per hundred thousand. Some European countries have fared worse than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. (Others have done far better: Germany and Denmark have lost just under eleven people per hundred thousand; for Canada and Mexico, the numbers are twenty-four and thirty-two, respectively.) But those European countries now have their outbreaks relatively under control, with tallies of new daily cases in the hundreds, not the thousands or tens of thousands. As the United States adds many more fatalities to its total, its relative position will only get worse. We are now, basically, in a race to the bottom with Brazil.

Trump is very wrong about how the United States is doing relative to the rest of the world. And yet even arguing the point misses how sordid his basic position is. When large numbers of Americans are dying, how much of a consolation, when it comes down to it, is the worse fatality rate for Belgium meant to be? Trump seems to believe that Americans would be satisfied, or even pleased, to hear that even more people in places they are unfamiliar with are dying, and to be frustrated that that message isn’t getting through. “If you watch American television, you would think the United States is the only country involved with suffering from the China virus,” he complained in the briefing. (Blaming the media comes even more naturally to Trump than blaming China.) The larger failing is that he doesn’t offer a conception of winning that goes beyond being able to claim that countries or populations his voters don’t identify with are doing worse than they are. (This is a domestic issue, too, rather than just a matter of xenophobia: one of the shocking aspects of the pandemic has been how willing many Americans—especially, but not exclusively, Republican politicians—have been to write off “the vulnerable.”) Another vision of winning might involve a true engagement in the international effort to contain the pandemic. In that respect, Trump never seems to get tired of losing.

There were moments when Trump acknowledged that the picture was not entirely rosy. “It will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better,” he said. And he cannot be entirely blind to the polls that show him falling further behind Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Trump has, in the past week, tweeted a picture of himself wearing a mask, and during the press conference he pulled one from his pocket. There was no contrition, of course, regarding his fatal mockery of masks for much of the pandemic. Instead, the President who recently summoned crowds to hear him speak in Oklahoma and Arizona claimed that he has been a voice for social distancing. He thought that he might have saved millions of lives. He certainly wasn’t to blame: “It’s a nasty horrible disease that should never have been allowed to escape China, but it did.” When a reporter pressed him on his earlier prediction that the virus would “disappear,” and whether he was responsible for the fact that the trajectory has been very different, he said, “Well, the virus will disappear. It will disappear.” He launched into a disjointed soliloquy about how good his relationships with various governors are and how wise his own decisions have been, and he repeated that “China should have stopped it.”

The next reporter Trump called on asked him about another topic—Ghislaine Maxwell, a former associate of Jeffrey Epstein’s, who was arrested earlier this month and is facing charges related to the sexual abuse of girls. (She has pleaded not guilty.) Trump said that he hadn’t been following the story, but that he knew Maxwell from Palm Beach. “I wish her well, whatever it is.” His good wishes seem, to say the least, misdirected. An optimist might think that his lack of focus on the latest in the Epstein-Maxwell story might mean that he was, at last, paying more attention to Florida’s hospital capacity than to the Palm Beach social scene. An optimist would be wrong.

Amy Davidson Sorkin