Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He figured out that a disease that will kill hundreds of thousands of Americans is not the flu.

At today's installment of the coronavirus task force briefing, an event that has become a sort of substitute campaign rally for Trump, he did something shocking: he attacked "a lot of people" who, he claimed, thought that COVID-19 was like seasonal influenza.

"But it's not the flu," Trump said. "It's vicious."

Trump is correct: as doctors and disease experts have been saying for months, COVID-19 is far more contagious and far more deadly than the flu. 

The statement is noteworthy, of course, because while Trump was still in denial about the need to prepare for an outbreak in the United States, he routinely compared it to the flu. 

February 26: At a press conference, Trump dismissed concerns about the spread of COVID-19 to the U.S. by saying, "This is a flu. This is like a flu." He added:

You don't want to see panic because there's no reason to be panicked about it.But when I mentioned the flu, I said - actually, I asked the various doctors. I said, "Is this just like flu?" Because people die from the flu. And this is very unusual. And it is a little bit different, but in some ways it's easier and in some ways it's a little bit tougher.But we have it so well under control. I mean, we really have done a very good job.
February 27: On the same day that Trump dismissed the CDC's conclusion that an outbreak in the United States was "inevitable" ("Well, I don't think it's inevitable"), Trump fielded a question about how Americans should protect themselves. He responded by joking about washing his hands, and said, "You know, you do certain things, that you do when you have the flu. I mean, view this the same as the flu."

March 4: Trump said that people who got the "corona flu" and weren't seriously sickened by it shouldn't be counted in the statistics. Trump didn't seem to know that those people could also pass it on to other people who could become seriously ill or die.

Now, this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild. They will get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor. They don’t even call a doctor. You never hear about those people. So, you can’t put them down in the category of the overall population in terms of this corona flu and — or virus.

March 5: Trump, in a televised meeting with pharmaceutical company executives, appeared to genuinely believe that existing flu vaccines could be used to prevent COVID-19. 

March 8: Trump said he was surprised to learn that the flu killed people. (His own grandfather died of it.) He said he was "shocked" at how deadly it was, and contrasted those numbers to COVID-19, which only a handful of Americans had died from at the time.

March 9: 

March 15: Trump tried compare COVID-19 to the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak, as a way of attacking his likely Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. (The actual figure of deaths from that outbreak, which was quickly contained, was about 12,500—far fewer than a typical flu season.)


March 24: Trump, still chafing at the political consequences of even a temporary isolation period, compared COVID-19 to the flu during a Fox News interview: "But we've never closed down the country for the flu! So you say to yourself, 'What is this all about?'"

March 24: Trump scolded a reporter who mentioned the disastrous 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed about 675,000 Americans: "Bill, excuse me, just one second.  You can’t compare this to 1918 where close to 100 million people died.  That was a flu, which — a little different.  But that was a flu where if you got it you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying. I think [the current virus's fatality rate is substantially under 1 percent."

In reality, the 1918 flu killed nowhere near 50% of the people infected. The lowest current estimate for the COVID-19 mortality rate is 38% higher than Trump claimed.

March 25: Trump implied that seasonal influenza this year was worse than COVID-19 would be, claiming that the flu claims 50,000 Americans every year. (The actual figure is much lower on average.)

Also today, Trump revised his administration's estimates of the number of American deaths from COVID-19 upward again. The upper bound of what amounts to the best-case scenario is now 240,000.

Why should I care about this?

  • This isn't something the President of the United States can afford to be this confused about for this long.

Monday, March 30, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He came out against making it easier for Americans to vote, if it's against him.

Trump sought out the relatively friendly territory of Fox and Friends for a phone interview this morning. It may have seemed politically necessary, after an unsettling press conference yesterday in which he moved the goalposts for the number of dead Americans he'd consider evidence of a "very good job" from zero to 100,000. (He also accused medical staff in pandemic hot zones of stealing emergency equipment and reselling it on the black market.)

A viewer wrote in with a question about "special interests" in the pandemic relief bills. Unprompted, Trump took the opportunity to complain about a provision Democrats had wanted to put in the latest relief bill that would help states do mail-in voting and protect Americans' rights to cast absentee ballots in November. He said:

The things they had in there were crazy. Uh, they had things, levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again. They had things in there about, uh, you know, election days, and what you do, and, uh, all sorts of, uh, clawbacks.

Several primary elections have already been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the federal election in November can't be moved. 

Trump seems to be assuming that mail-in ballots would be cast disproportionately against him, although there's no evidence to support that

He didn't offer any other reason (besides his fear he wouldn't be re-elected) why registered American voters shouldn't be allowed to vote absentee during a disease outbreak. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Voting in a democracy isn't supposed to depend on whether the ruling party thinks it can trust you to re-elect it.
  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's campaign strategy.
  • A president who doesn't think Americans would vote for him if they had the chance should probably try to change what he's doing, instead of trying to keep them from voting.a

Sunday, March 29, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found a pandemic statistic he can take seriously.

For the first three years of his presidency—and well into the current pandemic outbreak—Trump took a leisurely approach to his day job. He'd typically leave Washington three days a week for golfing and dining amongst supporters at one of his luxury resorts. And when he did spend weekdays in the White House, his approach to the daily routine forced his staff to come up with a euphemism—"executive time"—for his habit of watching TV and tweeting during business hours.

But when Trump realized in mid-March that his lackadaisical approach to the coronavirus would hurt him politically, he began making it part of his campaign. He started making daily appearances at White House briefings that television networks can't really refuse to air. Today, he came right out and admitted it, in a series of jubilant tweets bragging about the ratings numbers those briefings have been getting.

Trump, whose only genuine professional success has come as a reality TV star and producer, has an expert's appreciation for the nuances of Nielsen ratings. When fellow Republican and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger criticized him early in his term, Trump responded by mocking his TV ratings

Among the numbers that Trump didn't tweet about today were the total number of Americans who have tested positive with COVID-19 (141,000, as of 7:30 p.m. EDT), or who have died (at least 2,400), or who have lost their jobs in the last week (at least 3.3 million, not counting small business owners and independent contractors).

Why does this matter?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's TV ratings.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was very decisive, to hear himself tell it.

In the space of a few hours, Trump proposed, "considered," and then rejected the idea of blockading the entire New York City metro area, including Connecticut and New Jersey. 

He dangled the idea of an "enforceable" quarantine to reporters this morning, and then this evening announced on Twitter that he had decided not to. In between, he traveled to Virginia for a photo opportunity with the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship being dispatched to New York.

It's not clear what, other than reminding Americans that he could make decisions if he wanted to, Trump was trying to accomplish. As public health officials have struggled to get him to understand, the COVID-19 outbreak is everywhere in the United States. Cities are bearing the brunt of it at the moment, and strict and decisive restrictions on movement early on did lead to dramatic improvements in other countries. But for the United States, this late into an outbreak, it won't be contained or even slowed by quarantines

Trump's musings about a three-state quarantine come less than a week after he floated essentially the opposite idea—that the country could be fully "opened up" in time for "packed churches" on Easter, which is April 12 this year.

So what?

  • Actual crises require actual leadership.
  • Presidents should generally have given their plans some thought before announcing them.
  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's campaign strategy.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He either got very confused and angry about ventilators, or pretended to.

Last night, Trump appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News program to declare that he thought states were exaggerating how many ventilators they would need. He said, “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”

Ventilators are, in effect, breathing machines for patients who would die without respiratory assistance. Any "major" hospital has more than two, but Trump appears to be referring to the desperate request by New York state for 30,000 more ventilators. New York has the largest number of active cases now, and hospitals in New York City are beginning to be overwhelmed. Some are already resorting to the dangerous and untested practice of hooking multiple patients up to the same respirator.

Reaction to Trump's skepticism about the need for breathing machines during an outbreak of a potentially deadly respiratory illness was not positive.

Today, Trump reversed course in spectacular fashion. Instead of attacking New York, he blasted auto manufacturers for not having already started to make respirators. He specifically attacked General Motors, and its CEO Mary Barra, for not having already retooled the Lordstown, Ohio plant that he said it had "stupidly abandoned."

In the real world, General Motors cannot make ventilators at Lordstown because it sold the plant last year—which Trump praised at the time.

More to the point, GM and Ford (which Trump also lashed out at) were not making ventilators because the Trump administration was reluctant to pay them to do so—and Trump was even more reluctant to use his legal authority to force them to do it. In Trump's tweet language, this came out as the automakers demanding "TOP DOLLAR" to make medical equipment, and forcing him to "Invoke P!"

Trump, or a staffer using the account, later clarified that "Invoke P!" referred to the Defense Production Act, which Trump could have used at any point in the last three months to force manufacturers to shore up the United States' supply of lifesaving equipment.

Trump's sudden change of heart on the need for ventilators didn't improve his mood. At today's pandemic briefing, he was asked by a reporter if every American who needed a ventilator would get one. Trump snapped back, "Don't be a cutie-pie," and moved on without answering.

The outbreak is expected to peak in New York City in the next two to three weeks. There is no reason to think that Trump "invoking P" today will be in time to help in any way.

Why does this matter?

  • The president, and no one else, is responsible for making sure that the United States government is ready to respond to emergencies.
  • Three months into a pandemic is too late to realize that sick people might need medical equipment.
  • It's wrong to blame other people for your failures.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He congratulated America.

At 12:48 a.m. this morning, Trump tweeted this:

Trump was "congratulating" the country on the passage of a bipartisan relief bill worked out in the Senate, aimed at cleaning up some of the horrendous economic damage that the prolonged economic shutdown is already causing.

Jobless numbers released today show that 3.3 million American workers lost their jobs in the past week. That number is almost five times higher than the previous record, set in 1982. 

US jobless claims surge to record 3.3m as America locks down ...

More than 1,100 Americans were dead from COVID-19 as of this afternoon. As of today, the United States passed Italy and China and now has the most diagnosed cases in the world. Hospital intensive care units, or ICUs, where the sickest patients must be cared for, are at or near capacity in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Alabama.

Trump has refused to accept any responsibility for the United States' lack of preparedness, although reporting is now uncovering just how much he knew—or should have known—while his administration sat idle and he scoffed at the idea that the U.S. could be affected in any way. 

His congratulations were not generally received well.

Why does this matter?

  • This is nothing to take a victory lap over.
  • Inability to understand or react appropriately to the emotional states of other people can be a sign of serious mental illness.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about testing for COVID-19 more than South Korea, but forgot a few important details.

For weeks now, Trump has been insisting, all evidence to the contrary, that the United States had adequate testing for COVID-19. For example, on March 6—when the United States had processed about 3,000 total tests, or roughly 10 per million Americans—Trump claimed that "anybody who wants a test gets a test." Today, he compared the U.S. testing capacity to South Korea, which actually has largely contained its outbreak for the moment. He said:

Why would we test the entire nation, 350 million people? We have the ability to test... we have tested far more than anybody else. When I say anybody else, other countries, no country is even close. They came out with a statistic, I guess yesterday, that I heard from Dr. Birx where it's for eight days here more than eight weeks, and South Korea has done a great job. But we did in eight days what South Korea did for eight weeks. That's a big number.

Trump is right about one thing—South Korea did a great job with its testing, because it aggressively deployed working test kits at the first sign of danger, and instituted strict social gathering restrictions and business closures as soon as the disease showed signs of spreading.

Essentially everything else Trump said is a lie. First of all, South Korea has conducted about the same number of tests as the United States, for a country with one-sixth the population. And since those tests were conducted without unnecessary delay, they were far more effective at actually containing the outbreak.

The "eight days" Trump is referring to are really the only ones where the United States' testing has gotten off the ground at all. Over 90% of tests conducted in the United States happened during those eight days, long after the disease had taken root nationwide and dozens of Americans were dead.

But Trump also left out a particularly embarrassing detail: that the United States has gone begging to South Korea for the same tests he's bragging about. South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, told reporters today that "U.S. President Donald Trump made a request to us for the urgent provision of test kits and quarantine products."

Moon added that South Korea would do what it could to help the United States.

Why should I care about this?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's personal vanity.
  • It's wrong to take credit for solving problems that still exist.
  • It's wrong to take credit for solving problems that someone else is solving.
  • This is way too important to lie about this much.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained that the federal government's help during a crisis is a "two-way street."

Trump held a "town hall" meeting on Fox News today, in which he answered prescreened questions about his plans to have "the country opened" for business with its "churches packed" by Easter—April 12—even though public health experts say that's exactly the wrong thing to do.

Even without taking Trump's sudden impatience to end social distancing into account, the World Health Organization predicted that the United States was likely to be the next center of the pandemic. China got its local spread under control by enforcing a lockdown, and Italy's lockdown appears to just now be turning the corner on its far deadlier outbreak.

Trump has been especially careful to put all blame for the United States' dire situation on other people—on China, on Americans themselves, and especially state governments. In particular, he's clashed with New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing a major outbreak in New York City. Asked about the critical shortages of ventilators and protective gear for health care workers that states are experiencing, Trump said this:

Usually we’ll have 50 governors that will call it the same time. I think we are doing very well. But it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, "Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that." We’re doing a great job. Like in New York where we’re building, as I said, four hospitals, four medical centers. We’re literally building hospitals and medical centers. And then I hear that there’s a problem with ventilators. Well we sent them ventilators. And they could have had 15,000 or 16,000 – all they had to do was order them two years ago. But they decided not to do it. They can’t blame us for that.

The Trump administration directed that 400 ventilators be sent to New York, which needs 30,000. On the advice of industry lobbyists, Trump has steadfastly refused to use his emergency powers to force companies to make more, although he has said that companies like GM and Ford were making them. This was a lie.

New York state officials have already successfully sued Trump twice since taking office—once for his scam charity, and once for his fraudulent "university." He's also under investigation there for tax fraud and other financial crimes.

This isn't the first time that Trump has threatened that New York would be punished by his administration unless it "treated him well."

Why does this matter?

  • The safety and health of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's criminal liability.
  • A president who needs to be bribed or flattered into doing his job is unfit for office.

Monday, March 23, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He doubled down on his opposition to a "cure" for the coronavirus pandemic.

Last night, Trump opined on Twitter that where the COVID-19 pandemic was concerned, "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF."

In today's briefing, the tenth in a row for a president who rarely stays in Washington for more than four consecutive days, Trump was visibly eager to declare the end of "social distancing" at the end of his suggested 15-day period of limited interactions. Not only has the business impact of the world's anti-pandemic measures been disastrous for the stock market, Trump's favorite barometer of his own success, but economists think that a brutal recession is all but inevitable.

Trump has not actually taken any leadership on the question of closing schools, restricting gatherings, or forcing non-essential businesses to shut down. That difficult and unpopular task he has left to state officials. The 15-day "slow down" period, announced after states and institutions had already started making shutdown plans of their own, has no legal effect whatsoever.

Doctors and public health experts, meanwhile, are virtually unanimous that a much stricter form of self-quarantine—essentially, the same nationwide lockdowns that eventually brought the pandemic under control in places like Japan, China, and Singapore—is necessary. The Surgeon General of the United States said as much in an interview today, begging Americans not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.

Italy imposed such a lockdown 13 days ago, and is finally seeing its horrifying daily infection and death numbers begin to drop. Britain imposed one today.

Dr. Antony Fauci, who has urgently warned that the health care system will be totally overwhelmed without a heroic effort to slow the spread of the disease, was conspicuously absent from today's briefing. Asked what Fauci thought about Trump's plan, Trump responded, "He doesn't not agree." 

As the Washington Post noted today, there's another motive for Trump to encourage local governments to lift restrictions: his most profitable businesses in the hospitality industry have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Why does this matter?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than the Trump Organization's quarterly profits.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried and failed to stay on his coronavirus message.

Trump spent a rare Sunday in the White House today—if only because his usual three-day-a-week residence, his luxury resort Mar-a-Lago, was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in what is becoming the new normal, Trump also appeared at a coronavirus-themed press conference, his ninth in nine days.

These briefings have mostly been heavy on promises, light on specifics, and above all, aimed at convincing Americans that Trump is not responsible for anything that might or might not happen. That's a tall order, with millions of Americans expected to get sick and the economic recovery that Trump inherited now in shambles.

By that standard, today's press conference was a mixed bag. Trump read some lines from his prepared script that almost recalled normal presidential rhetoric about Americans being united in a common cause. But he also made dark jokes about his political enemies getting sick, lashed out at reporters, and complained that being president was costing him money. (That last part is, now, probably true. Trump's hotels and resorts will be badly hurt by the consequences of the United States' poor preparation for the pandemic—though he's also hinted he'll use taxpayer money to bail himself out.)

Then, a few hours later, Trump tweeted this:

There is now near-universal belief that the United States will fall into a deep recession (and indeed is already in one). More importantly, even in the mildest projections, millions of Americans are expected to be sickened by the virus and hundreds of thousands are expected to die. (Eleven more deaths were reported during Trump's conference today.) 

Trump didn't say what "cure" he thought would be worse than this.

UPDATE, March 23: Trump, who is notoriously susceptible to manipulation by cable TV, appears to have written this tweet after watching a Fox news host use almost exactly the same language

Why should I care about this?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's political needs.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He quadrupled down on untested drugs as cures for COVID-19.

Yesterday, Trump was gently rebuked in real time by a medical expert for his promotion of certain existing drugs as potential treatments for COVID-19. Even then, Trump got the last word, saying he wasn't wrong to get people's hopes up over his hunch that chlorquinine and azithromycin might help because "I'm a smart guy. I feel good about it." 

To be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that the antimalarial drug chlorquine or the antibiotic azithromycin will have any use as a treatment or cure for COVID-19. In times of crisis, doctors often try unusual treatments in an attempt to stumble on a shortcut to an effective drug therapy. But only one tiny study has been done so far on chlorquinine, and it concluded only that it was worth studying in larger numbers. 

Even that one study did not show that chlorquinine might improve patient health, but only that it could potentially make a sick person contagious for a shorter period of time. But COVID-19 is usually most contagious before an infected person feels sick and seeks treatment.

In spite of all that, Trump once again shouted his enthusiasm for this drug combination at the daily briefing and on Twitter today. (He also "solved" the critical shortage of protective equipment for medical professionals by saying that masks and filtered should be reused. People who actually make and work with them say that is generally a very bad idea.)

The political calculus for Trump is simple: in the unlikely event that a common drug is already a cure, he can take credit for having solved the problem without ever doing anything about it. And if it fails, he can say it was just an idea.

But the hype has real-world consequences. In Nigeria, after Trump began hyping the drugs, worried patients began buying them and self-medicating, which resulted in poisonings. And hydroxychloroquine is an important drug for the treatment of lupus. Trump's ad campaign for its use against COVID-19 has already resulted in shortages.

So what?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's political messaging.

Friday, March 20, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got into a debate with his medical experts and fights with reporters.

Since making a visible effort to "pivot" to taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, Trump has been holding daily press conferences. Many of those have featured Dr. Antony Fauci, a legendary figure in public health administration. Fauci has been forced into the position of having to publicly contradict Trump's false claims about cures or vaccines several times. 

It happened again today. A reporter asked Dr. Fauci about a drug that Trump claimed yesterday (incorrectly) as having been approved by the FDA to treat the coronavirus.

Q: And to Dr. Fauci, if I could.  Dr. Fauci — this was explained yesterday — there has been some promise with hydroxychloroquine as potential therapy for people who are infected with coronavirus.  Is there any evidence to suggest that, as with malaria, it might be used as a prophylaxis against COVID-19? 
DR. FAUCI:  No.  The answer is no.  And the evidence that you’re talking about, John, is anecdotal evidence.  So as the Commissioner of FDA and the President mentioned yesterday, we’re trying to strike a balance between making something with a potential of an effect to the American people available, at the same time that we do it under the auspices of a protocol that would give us information to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective. 
But the information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal; it was not done in a controlled clinical trial.  So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.

Trump stepped up to the podium and interjected:

TRUMP: ...It’s early.  But we’ve — you know, I’ve seen things that are impressive.  And we’ll see.  We’re going to know soon.  We’re going to know soon — including safety. 
But, you know, when you get to safety, this has been prescribed for many years for people to combat malaria, which was a big problem.  And it’s very effective.  It’s a strong — it’s a strong drug.  So we’ll see.
Q  It was also fairly effective against SARS. 
TRUMP:  It was a very — it was, as I understand that.  Is that a correct statement — it was fairly effective on SARS? 

Fauci then used the reporter's phrasing as an indirect way of contradicting Trump.

DR. FAUCI:  John, you’ve got to be careful when you say “fairly effective.”  It was never done in a clinical trial. They [never] compared it to anything.  It was given to individuals and felt that maybe it worked.

Trump took the rebuke without further comment, but when a reporter asked if he was giving Americans false hope, he began to lose his temper:

TRUMP:  Such a lovely question.  Look, it may work and it may not work.  And I agree with the doctor, what he said: It may work, it may not work. 
I feel good about it.  That’s all it is.  Just a feeling.  You know, I’m a smart guy.  I feel good about it.  And we’re going to see.  You’re going to see soon enough.

Visibly angry now, Trump lashed out at a reporter who was clearly trying to ask him a "softball" question that would allow him to offer words of comfort to worried Americans:

Q    I’ll just follow up.  Nearly 200 dead.  What do you say to Americans who are scared, though?  I guess, nearly 200 dead; 14,000 who are sick; millions, as you witness, who are scared right now.  What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared? 
TRUMP:  I say that you’re a terrible reporter.  That’s what I say.
Go ahead. 
Q    Mr. President, the units that were just declared — 
TRUMP:  I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.  The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope.  And you’re doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and “Con-cast.”  I don’t call it — I don’t call it “Comcast,” I call it “Con-cast.” 
Let me just — for who you work — let me just tell you something: That’s really bad reporting, and you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism.
Let’s see if it works.  It might and it might not.  I happen to feel good about it, but who knows.  I’ve been right a lot.  Let’s see what happens. John? 
Q    Can I get back to science and the logistics here? 
TRUMP:  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Trump did not offer any words of comfort to Americans. This may be just as well: a few weeks ago, he confidently predicted that the first few cases in the United States would quickly "go to zero." As of Friday evening there were just under 20,000 Americans diagnosed with COVID-19, and millions more expected in the coming weeks.

So what?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than the president's ego.
  • Not being able to accept any evidence of failure is not a sign of good mental health.
  • It is not the media's fault that Americans are contracting a potentially fatal disease that the United States governme is poorly prepared to fight.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained why it's not his job to get American doctors desperately needed medical supplies.

Yesterday, Trump called himself a "wartime president" and authorized the use of a Korean War-era law that would allow him to order the manufacture of medical supplies to fight the coronavirus update. But he didn't actually issue any orders.

Asked why today, Trump responded, "The Federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk."

Actually, that is exactly what the federal government is supposed to be doing, which is why laws like this exist—and were created for use in "wartime" or similar emergencies.

New York Times headline from today

Trump's political strategy is clearer than his public health plans. He has shifted from saying that there was no problem, or that he had already solved the problem, to declaring that the problem exists, but is not his fault or responsibility. 

For example, he has insisted on referring to the coronavirus, known as COVID-19 or SARS-Cov-2, as the "Chinese virus." As American deaths and hospitalizations mount, and the economy teeters on the edge of what may become the biggest recession since the Great Depression, Trump has devoted time from every recent press conference to shifting blame to the Chinese government for failing to contain the virus in the first place. (For its part, the Chinese government is also refusing to take responsibility.)

He even crossed out references to "coronavirus" in his own prepared remarks for today's briefing and wrote in "Chinese virus" to be sure that he would remember to use the term as much as possible.

Image result for trump chinese virus photograph notes
Jabin Botsford/Washington Post

Violence and threats against Asian-Americans has increased sharply in recent days. Trump insists he's not responsible for that, either.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The health and safety of Americans is more important than Donald Trump's political messaging.
  •  A president who can't or won't do the difficult or un-heroic parts of the job should resign.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He shrugged at the fact that poorer people get worse health care.

Today, two members of Congress announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19. It was also reported that at least two NBA teams and their staff had all received tests. A surprising number of other celebrities and political figures have tested positive as well, and still more—including Trump himself—have been tested because they might have come into contact with people who were infectious, even though they were not showing symptoms.

Politicians and celebrities do more than their fair share of hand-shaking and traveling, and might be slightly overrepresented in the infected population. But a more likely explanation for the number of famous victims of COVID-19 is that it takes a great deal of influence to get a test, at least in the United States. Trump has repeatedly lied about the number of tests available since the shortage (unique to the United States) became apparent, falsely claiming that anyone who wanted a test could get one when the United States was only testing a few thousand patients per day.

Today, Trump was asked about seemingly healthy NBA players being tested while sick Americans in emergency rooms went without.

Q: How are non-symptomatic professional athletes getting tests while others are waiting in line and can’t get them?  Do the well-connected go to the front of the line? 
TRUMP:  Well, that — you’d have to ask them that question.  I mean, they — I — I’ve read — 
Q:  Should that happen? 
TRUMP: No, I wouldn’t say so, but perhaps that’s been the story of life.  That does happen on occasion.  And I’ve noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.

Trump's shrug at the chancy availability of coronavirus tests came the day after he praised West Virginia for being the last state to report a positive test. At the time, West Virginia—a poor state with a weak health-care system—had only conducted 137 tests total.

Why does this matter?

  • Rich and influential people getting preferential treatment during a disease outbreak might be "the story of life," but it's also the sort of thing presidents are supposed to think is bad.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried really, really hard to convince Americans he'd been taking the coronavirus seriously this whole time.

The past twenty-four hours have seen a sudden shift in Trump's tone where the coronavirus is concerned. With major American cities paralyzed by shelter-in-place orders and his own Treasury Secretary predicting 20% unemployment, Trump seems to have realized that Americans are taking the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously, and is now attempting to adjust his approach to match.

A reporter asked him about the dramatic change in tone today. Trump replied:

I didn’t feel different, I’ve always known this is a real … this is a pandemic. I thought this was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic; all you had to do was look at other countries. I think now it’s almost 120 countries all over the world. No, I’ve always viewed it as very serious. There was no difference yesterday from days before. I feel the tone is similar, but some people said it wasn’t.

The World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak to be a pandemic last Wednesday. Prior to that, Trump said, among other things, that:

  • it would not become a pandemic (Jan. 22)
  • Americans' concern about it was a "hoax" meant to hurt him politically (Feb. 28)
  • the flu was worse (Mar. 4)
  • "It's going to disappear. One day — it's like a miracle — it will disappear." (Feb. 28)
  • the disease was "very much under control in the USA" (Feb. 24)
  • the outbreak was "getting much better in Italy" (Mar. 7)
  • a vaccine would be available within months (Mar. 2)

Trump initially refused to even ask for funding to prepare the country for the inevitable spread, apparently believing that a few travel restrictions from China—not applicable American citizens—would keep the virus out. When political pressure mounted on him to do something, he reluctantly asked Congress for $2.5 billion. 

Today, his administration proposed spending more than $1 trillion as a first attempt at limiting some of the damage.

So what?

  • You can't really tell lies this big and obvious without showing your contempt for the people you're telling them to.
  • Americans' health and safety is more important than Donald Trump's political fortunes.

Monday, March 16, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told state governments that they were on their own.

For a few moments today, speaking at yet another press conference on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. The stock markets—Trump's main barometer of his own success—were plunging yet again, this time a nearly unprecedented 13% on the Dow Jones. (In the last thirty years, only last Thursday's 10% drop comes close.) 

Apparently afraid that his laid-back response was looking bad compared to urgent and dramatic measures taken by state governors and mayors over the last few days, Trump finally admitted a few stark truths that most Americans had already figured out. He said that there will likely be a severe economic recession as a result of the outbreak in the United States. And he also acknowledged that the virus will remain a serious threat through late summer at least, rather than "miraculously going away" in April as he had previously predicted.

But earlier in the day, on a call with state governors, Trump essentially threw in the towel on desperately needed federal help for getting medical equipment to hospitals. As the New York Times reported, Trump seemed to think that state officials simply hadn't thought to try to buy safety equipment or the devices that help very sick patients breathe at retail:
“Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” Mr. Trump told the governors during the conference call, a recording of which was shared with The New York Times. “We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.” 

The Trump administration was somehow caught off-guard by the need to distribute federal stockpiles of ventilators and has been cagey about how or when they will do so.

Asked today how he'd grade his handling of the outbreak on a scale of one to ten, Trump responded, "I'd rate it a ten. I think we've done a great job."

Why does this matter?

  • It is way, way too late for Trump to only just now be taking this seriously.
  • A president who can't or won't do difficult or politically risky things to protect Americans' health and well-being should resign.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about the FBI and the Department of Justice.

With much of the country coming to terms with the reality of life during the coronavirus outbreak, and the Trump administration's handling of it, Trump himself used the opportunity to test the political waters for pardoning one of the key figures connecting him to Russia's attack on the 2016 election.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the government—Trump's government, under Trump-appointed attorneys general—has "lost" any evidence with respect to Flynn. Trump appears to have made it up, or to be listening to someone who did.

Flynn, an Army general who was fired by the Obama administration, attached himself to Trump during the campaign. While part of Trump's inner circle, he secretly worked as a lobbyist for Turkey and accepted "speaking fees" from Russian sources—both legal activities that he illegally concealed from the public. His role as a go-between for the Trump campaign and the Russian government was detailed in the Mueller report. After being named Trump's national security advisor, Flynn was identified as a likely target of Russian blackmail by then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates in the first days of the Trump administration. Trump immediately fired Yates, but was forced only days later to fire Flynn as well.

Flynn entered into a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, who allowed him to plead guilty to a single count of making false statements in exchange for his cooperation with other criminal investigations. He has since tried to recant that guilty plea.

Virtually all of the pardons that Trump has issued so far have either been to political allies, or people convicted of the same crimes (tax fraud, perjury, obstruction of justice, corruption, and bribery, for example) that he himself has been credibly accused of.

Why does this matter?

  • It doesn't get much more corrupt than using your political office to help your suspected collaborators escape justice.
  • It's wrong to lie to try to undermine Americans' faith in their government.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about one of the fastest stock market crashes in history.

One indicator of just how bad the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be for the United States is the stock market, which has taken a beating in the last month. But stocks did rebound yesterday after Trump finally announced he was declaring a state of emergency regarding the illness which is now projected to sicken tens of millions of Americans and potentially overwhelm the health care system.

Today, Trump bragged about that stock market bounce—over and over again. He tweeted about it, sent supporters on his mailing list signed copies of the day's stock charts, and took time out of what was allegedly a "task force" meeting to gloat over it.

In reality, Trump's decision to actually start treating the federal government's pandemic response seriously was such a big hit with investors on Friday that it almost made up for the even more catastrophic day the markets had on Thursday.

Trump has frequently shown what appears to be genuine confusion as the pandemic has spread. For example, he's confused COVID-19 with Ebola, and apparently thought that flu vaccines would work on it. But there is no chance that Trump, whose personal and political fortunes are tied up in the stock market, is as happy about the markets as he pretended to be today.

Why is this a problem?

  • Lying with cherry-picked statistics is still lying.

Friday, March 13, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He wasn't responsible.

This afternoon, Trump finally, and reluctantly, declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, something that public health officials and state governments have been begging him to do for weeks. Over the course of a long press conference, Trump made a number of confused or otherwise false statements, but the underlying theme seemed to be that Trump didn't want to be held to account for how he's handled the crisis so far.

Trump repeatedly tried to shift blame for this newly-evolved virus to the Obama administration, whose pandemic response team Trump disbanded in 2018. When a reporter asked about the critical shortage of working tests—the United States has still tested only about as many as smaller countries like South Korea are testing in a single day—Trump had this exchange:

Q: Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was, in fact, “a failing.”  Do you take responsibility for that? 
And when can you guarantee that every single American who needs a test will be able to have a test?  What’s the date of that? 
TRUMP: Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all.

Moments later, he snapped back at a reporter who pointed out that actual public health experts have criticized his administration's response as too little, too late, and too worried about not offending Trump:

Q: My first question is: You said that you don’t take responsibility, but you did disband the White House pandemic office, and the officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly.  So what responsibility do you take to that?  And the officials that worked in that office said that you — that the White House lost valuable time because that office was disbanded.  What do you make of that? 
TRUMP:  Well, I just think it’s a nasty question because what we’ve done is — and Tony has said numerous times that we’ve saved thousands of lives because of the quick closing.  And when you say “me,” I didn’t do it.  We have a group of people I could — 
Q: It’s your administration. 
TRUMP:  I could ask perhaps — my administration — but I could perhaps ask Tony about that because I don’t know anything about it.  I mean, you say — you say we did that.  I don’t know anything about it

Why is this a problem? 

  • Presidents don't get to "not take responsibility at all" for a major economic and public health crisis.
  • If Trump genuinely can't remember disbanding President Obama's pandemic task force, that's probably even worse than him lying about having done it.
  • Presidents who can't handle "nasty questions" when people's lives and jobs are at stake can't do the job.
  • This is too important a subject to lie or spread misinformation about.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said stocks would "bounce back" after his latest coronavirus plan cause the single biggest market crash in 33 years.

Major American stock indexes were down a virtually unprecedented 9-10% today, as a direct result of Trump's disastrous attempt to reassure investors last night. (Stock futures rallied just before Trump began speaking, then plummeted swiftly as he spoke.) 

The damage to investors—and to anyone whose income or business relies on investments—is difficult to express. It was the fourth worst day ever for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, second only to the 1987 "Black Monday" event, and the worst two days of the market crash of 1929 that foretold the Great Depression.

Asked about it today, Trump responded by saying, "You have to remember, the stock market, as an example, is still much higher than when I got here." 

That isn't true. Measured in terms of money lost, the markets have now lost all of the value gained since Trump was elected. Trump has bragged almost incessantly about stock prices since taking over for the Obama-era recovery from the 2007-08 recession. While stock prices are not a complete measure of the strength of an economy, a drop of 28% in the space of a month is catastrophic.

He added, "And it’s taken a big hit, but it’s going to all bounce back and it’s going to bounce back very big at the right time." Twelve trading days earlier, Trump tweeted similar advice:

$10,000 invested in an DJIA index fund at the time Trump said that would be worth $7,582 today.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Americans have lost three years of retirement savings precisely because the coronavirus is not "very much under control."

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made a speech.

Eleven days after calling concern about the coronavirus a "hoax," six days after two senior White House advisors declared the virus "contained" within the United States, and five days after he falsely claimed that desperately needed testing kits were available, Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office on the subject of what is now officially a pandemic.

The single most common theme of Trump's brief speech was to insist that he was doing a good job handling the crisis. The Washington Post color-coded the address to demonstrate just how much of it was devoted to Trump patting himself on the back. Bragging and self-congratulation is highlighted in orange; actually useful advice is in blue.

Most of the speech was about planned economic relief. It fell flat: stock market futures were up slightly at the start of Trump's speech, then fell sharply during and after it, forecasting yet another terrible day tomorrow. U.S. markets are down over 20% in the last month, wiping out all gains going back to November of 2017.

Dow Jones futures on the evening of March 12. Trump began speaking at 9 p.m. EDT (21:00).

The only real policy change in Trump's announcement was to ban incoming travel from Europe (or at least the 26 countries that make up the Schengen Area). As a practical matter, this won't really affect the spread of the disease, which is well-rooted in the United States and growing exponentially. 

In spite of desperate pleas from state and federal officials, Trump still hasn't declared a national emergency over the pandemic, in part because to do so would call attention to the fact that he openly talked about COVID-19 as no worse than the common flu for weeks. He is reportedly waiting for the report of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, before deciding on an emergency declaration. (Kushner, who like Trump inherited and squandered a family fortune in real estate, has no medical or public health experience.)

States of emergency allow for faster and more coordinated responses from the federal government. The country is currently operating under 33 separate emergency states, six of them declared by Trump.

So what?

  • Americans' health and safety is more important than Donald Trump's political messaging.
  • It's bad to put unqualified relatives in charge of life-and-death decisions affecting millions of Americans.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about his popularity again.

Trump wasn't able to come up with the specifics for the economic recovery plan that he'd promised would be available today. (He made that promise yesterday, after announcing that he'd be taking some kind of action on the cratering stock market—something he apparently forgot to tell his own staff.) But he did find time to tweet about the election.

Specifically, he claimed that "polls"—plural—show "BOTH" Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders losing to him in the general election.

In the real world, only one nationwide poll in the last month has shown Trump beating either candidate: a mid-February poll from Emerson College with Trump over Biden by 4. 17 other polls showed Biden and Sanders beating Trump—by 6.5% in Biden's case, and by 4.9% in Sanders's.

That one outlier was taken before the stock markets plummeted nearly 20% over the last few weeks, and before the reality of Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak began to set in with voters.

The most recent two polls, released yesterday, have Biden winning by 7% (Morning Consult), and Biden winning by 9% with Sanders winning by 7% (Quinnipiac).

Going back to the start of 2020, there have been 39 national head-to-head polls in the RealClearPolitics average, with Trump losing to Sanders or Biden in 37 of them.


Trump didn't say which "polls" he was reading—which is typical

Why should I care about this?

  • There are more important things for the President of the United States to worry about in a crisis situation than his personal popularity.
  • Lying about how popular you are to make yourself popular doesn't tend to work after about the third grade.

Friday, March 6, 2020

What Trump Did Today will resume posting on Tuesday, March 10.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about coronavirus tests being available.

Trump took a tour of the CDC today. A self-described "germophobe," he briefly canceled the visit when a CDC worker was suspected of having been exposed to the coronavirus, before rescheduling after taking political heat. (Trump has encouraged people to go to work even if they are sick, which is exactly what doctors and public health officials are begging people not to do.)

After the tour, Trump said this to reporters:

But — but I think — I think, importantly: Anybody right now and yesterday — anybody that needs a test gets a test. We — they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test. 
If there’s a doctor that wants to test, if there’s somebody coming off a ship — like the big monster ship that’s out there right now, which, you know — again, that’s a big decision. Do I want to bring all those people on? People would like me to do that. I don’t like the idea of doing it. 
But anybody that needs a test can have a test. They’re all set. They have them out there.

This is a lie. Tests continue to be in desperately short supply, thanks to the Trump administration's decision not to use the World Health Organization test developed in the early days of the outbreak. The American version was flawed at first and misidentified sick people as not infected, allowing them to spread the virus to others.

It is not true that everyone who wants or needs to be tested can be. Even most of the patients on the "big monster ship" Trump referenced, who are in quarantine, have not been tested. Only 41 out of 3,500 people aboard were able to get tested as of late today—26 of whom were infected—meaning that evacuation of the rest will be delayed indefinitely.

The lack of working, readily available tests in the United States is exactly why the virus has spread almost entirely unchecked here in the last few weeks. It also means that the actual magnitude of the outbreak in the United States won't become clear until it's effectively too late to prevent its spread in specific areas.

Why does this matter?

  • Lies about this sort of thing will lead to more people getting sick.
  • The highest priority in a disease outbreak is getting Americans trustworthy, reliable information even if it's not what would be best for the president politically.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to de-fund state and local police.

Recently, a federal court found that Trump could legally withhold federal grants to state and local police. Today, Trump went on Twitter to threaten to de-fund police in so-called "sanctuary cities." These are jurisdictions that don't use local police forces or jails to detain people suspected of federal immigration violations. 

In his tweet, Trump referred to suspected immigration violators as "criminals," but this is wrong on two counts. Most immigration violations in the United States aren't crimes, because most people in that situation are overstaying a legal visa. That can result in deportation, but it is not a criminal offense. And undocumented populations commit far fewer crimes than citizens or permanent residents.

In other words, because places like Virginia or New York City aren't willing to do the job of federal law enforcement, Trump is promising to make it harder for them to do the job of local law enforcement. (No jurisdiction, "sanctuary" or otherwise, refuses to cooperate with federal arrest warrants for noncitizens accused of crimes.)

It's not clear exactly how much taxpayer money Trump is threatening to take away from state and local law enforcement.

Why should I care about this?

  • Police officers aren't supposed to be used as political hostages.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

For the next few days, What Trump Did Today may publish on a slightly irregular schedule.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to blame the critical shortage of new coronavirus test kits on President Obama.

Trump has been increasingly worried lately about his administration's chaotic response to the COVID-19 outbreak—or, at least, how it's making him look. (That is one reason that reporters at a daily coronavirus briefing are now barred from recording what administration officials are saying.)

The situation with testing kits has been especially embarrassing. The CDC was relying at first on a defective model, and it was forced to restrict their use during the crucial early phase of the outbreak because of confusion within the administration. This led to a bottleneck in testing, and—even worse—meant that the true scale of the outbreak in the United States remains unknown while it spreads on its own in local communities.

Today, Trump tried to shift the blame for the kits to the President Obama, who left office three years before the COVID-19 outbreak began. He told an audience of airline industry officials:

The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing.  And we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion.  That was a decision we disagreed with.  I don’t think we would have made it, but for some reason it was made.  But we’ve undone that decision.
This is not true. There isn't much else to say, because what Trump said happened didn't happen in reality.

Trump has undone Obama-era work on disease prevention and outbreak control, though. In 2018, he  disbanded the task force that was supposed to be in place to respond to things like COVID-19.

Why does this matter?

  • Blaming other people for problems you've created doesn't make your problems go away.
  • The health and safety of the American public is more important than Trump's political life.
  • Lying about this sort of thing, in the middle of an unfolding crisis, creates confusion and mistrust that costs lives.