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Science & Environment

Examining Trump's COVID-19 Rhetoric Against Factual Evidence

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is ready to reopen America - at least parts of it where the coronavirus appears to be less of a problem.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now that we have passed the peak in new cases, we're starting our life again. We're starting rejuvenation of our economy again in a safe and structured and very responsible fashion.

MARTIN: That's the president speaking at the White House last night. How a president talks in a crisis does a lot to shape the public's understanding. So what happens when that message is inconsistent or factually inaccurate? We're going to walk through the president's rhetoric through this pandemic and how it measures up to the reality in any given moment. To do that, we are joined by Geoff Brumfiel from our Science Desk and Tamara Keith, who covers the White House; both of them also in their home studios. Good morning, you two.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's start in January. This was early days of the pandemic, and the president shut down travel from China. By the time it went into effect, there were already a handful of cases in the U.S. Trump was asked about it by Sean Hannity on Fox News on February 2.

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SEAN HANNITY: I think we're now up to our eighth case in the United States. How concerned are you?

TRUMP: Well, we've pretty much shut it down coming in from China.

MARTIN: Trump has repeatedly gone back to that China travel restriction as a key part of his role in battling the pandemic. Geoff, how important has it been?

BRUMFIEL: At the very beginning, it probably made a difference. It helped slow down the import of the virus. But there were two problems. So, first of all, people were still able to come in from China, U.S. citizens and permanent residents and such. And second, we now know from genetic analysis of the virus that it came to the East Coast from Europe. And it wasn't really until March that the European travel bans went in. And so in the end, it just really bought time.

KEITH: And during that time, there were massive failures here in the U.S. to ramp up testing for the virus, which means that everyone was in the dark about how significantly it was spreading. President Trump continued to treat it as an only-in-China problem and boast that the U.S. had it totally contained. The reality is the U.S. had its first case on January 21. That's when it was announced. By the end of February, the invisible enemy, as President Trump calls it, wasn't just on the outside. It was here.

MARTIN: Right. And throughout that time, public health officials were warning that the situation could change really quickly. I want to play a clip from Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC. This is her in a call with reporters on February 25.

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NANCY MESSONNIER: I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that while I didn't think that they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for a significant disruption of our lives.

MARTIN: So she clearly saw where this was going. Tam, what was Trump saying?

KEITH: You know, at this time, the coronavirus was spreading in Iran and Italy. The stock market here there in the U.S. was crashing. And President Trump knew he had a problem, so he shook up his Coronavirus Task Force and put the vice president in charge. But at the very same time, he was downplaying the situation in public remarks.

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TRUMP: When you have 15 people 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.

BRUMFIEL: What's interesting is just minutes after that press conference ended, the CDC announced they had diagnosed their first case of the virus in the U.S. not connected to travel. That's what's called community spread. And we now know it had been spreading for a while through different pockets of the U.S. quietly. And a part of the reason I think it went undetected is that it can spread easily by people who don't appear sick or aren't sick yet. And that's why we need lots of tests.

MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about testing for a minute. President Trump constantly talks about how easy it is to get a test. Here he is in early March.

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TRUMP: Anybody that wants a test can get a test.

MARTIN: I mean, it's just not true. Tam, we've heard time and again to this day there are not enough tests.

KEITH: Yep, that's right. I was with the president at the CDC when he made that statement. It was obviously not true then and even now, as you say. With millions of tests now conducted, it's still not true. Governors I've spoken to just this week say they need more tests.

BRUMFIEL: And it's also about access. I mean, testing is still hard to come by in some of the communities that need it the most. It's not enough just to have the test kits available. You need to get them where they're needed.

MARTIN: Right. So as March went on, President Trump made this sharp turn when his public health advisers told him he needed to take more drastic steps. He announces recommendations, like limited gatherings, closing schools for 15 days to slow the spread. It's not enough, though. He was presented with models showing worst-case scenarios up to 2 million deaths. Let's listen to this.

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TRUMP: If we could hold that down, as we're saying, to 100,000 - it's a horrible number, maybe even less but to 100,000 so we have between 100,00 and 200,000, we all together have done a very good job.

MARTIN: So the president extends his recommendations for another 30 days through the end of April. And this has helped, right, Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: Absolutely, it's helped. I mean, that recommendation and probably even more importantly strict action at state level, like stay-at-home orders, have made all the difference. These moves saved lives. And in the first wave, we may actually not see 100,000 dead, though it's probably a little early to say.

MARTIN: Still, Tamara, President Trump has been impatient, right? I mean, it is clear that he wants to get on the other side of this quickly.

KEITH: Absolutely. Within just a few days of each of these major announcements, Trump started bristling at the economic toll. And, you know, he has essentially been pushing to reopen ever since things shut down. This was him in early April.

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TRUMP: We have a big decision to make. We went this extra period of time. But I said it from the beginning the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.

MARTIN: So now the administration has laid out a plan of sorts. It's called the Guidelines To Reopen America Again. It leaves a lot of flexibility for states to decide when to begin ramping life back up. Geoff, what do public health officials make of these guidelines?

BRUMFIEL: So the experts I've been speaking to say, look, it is good not to have a one-size-fits-all because states and cities are different. And they're also at different points in dealing with this outbreak. COVID-19 is spreading in different ways throughout the country. But the same experts tell me that the only way you can lift these restrictions even somewhat is a lot of testing. I'm sorry to sound like a broken record here. So if you can tell COVID - and you need it to tell if COVID's coming back. And from what I'm hearing, there's still not enough testing.

KEITH: Yeah. So after these guidelines came out yesterday, I interviewed Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state. This is a state that had it early and has successfully bent the curve. And he said that the president's optimism in a call with governors and also in public remarks about getting things going, that optimism was out of sync with the reality in his state and in many states. Inslee says that, you know, his state has done a really good job, and yet they are nowhere near ready to push the green button. They don't even know if they've peaked yet. And to come back to that broken record, he says a lack of testing continues to be a concern. He pushed that to the president. He told me we operate on data, not dreams.

MARTIN: NPR's Tamara Keith, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, we appreciate you both. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.