Trump: We only have 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus, you know

Someday someone will explain to me what he thought he was accomplishing by saying stuff like this. My fallback explanation is always “He’s trying to talk the market up,” but he’s been trying that for the past two weeks with zero success. At some point even he has to understand that unrealistic optimism panics investors more than if he didn’t say anything at all.

Maybe this is his way of trying to reassure people. His aides are probably telling him to stay realistically optimistic in his public remarks — the tests are coming, we’re working on a fiscal stimulus, and so on — but in his mind that translates into a simple reliance on “the numbers” which everyone except him understands by now are faulty. There are 546 confirmed cases here because we’ve only tested a few thousand people. There’s every reason to believe that coronavirus is deadlier than the flu is, and much deadlier to older people. There’s no vaccine, and warmer summer weather doesn’t guarantee that cases of a novel virus will tail off. The flu numbers in the tweet below are the tally at the end of flu season whereas we’re still in the beginning stages of “corona season.” Confirmed cases are about to go way, way, way up as mass testing finally comes online. Almost everyone understands this.

So why can’t he resist stuff like this?

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1237027356314869761
https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1237024551294382081

To stay sane, I try to reassure myself that people routinely discount the truth of things he says and thus pronouncements like these don’t actually harm anyone. Every doctor in the country, including his own advisors, is expressing some degree of alarm, especially about the lack of testing. Mike Pence’s public rhetoric communicates the degree of concern. Surely even Trump fans are shrugging off his tweets as just “Trump being Trump” or whatever and have begun staying away from public places, washing their hands more, and so on. There are two Republican members of Congress in self-quarantine right now because an attendee at the right’s biggest political gathering, CPAC, had the virus when he showed up last week. No one is taking Trump’s weird compulsion towards happy talk as superior guidance to Tony Fauci’s, right?

But some are, surely. And so what can one do to convince him to take this seriously apart from shouting “STOP” at him?

The weirdest part is that he’s already paying a political price for being so unrealistically optimistic. Today this tweet, which was posted two weeks ago, is circulating on political social media as evidence of just how far out of touch he is:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1232058127740174339

Here he was three days later, discussing the likelihood of community spread in the U.S.:

Of the 15 people — the “original 15,” as I call them — 8 of them have returned to their homes, to stay in their homes until fully recovered. One is in the hospital and five have fully recovered. And one is, we think, in pretty good shape and it’s in between hospital and going home.

So we have a total of — but we have a total of 15 people, and they’re in a process of recovering, with some already having fully recovered…

Now, what we’ve done is we’ve stopped non-U.S. citizens from coming into America from China. That was done very early on. We’re screening people, and we have been, at a very high level — screening people coming into the country from infected areas…

So we’re at the low level. As they get better, we take them off the list, so that we’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck.

What did he think he was achieving by saying this? Fauci and Alex Azar and a dozen other experts must have explained to him ad nauseam by that point that the disease was spreading undetected due to the slow rollout in testing. Any rational politician would have used his public remarks to prepare the public for that: “We’re bound to have more cases but I think we can slow the spread down enough that we won’t have a crisis.” Instead he was making predictions about reducing the number of cases.

This isn’t rational behavior even from the standpoint of political self-interest. A week from now, when there are 5,000 confirmed cases or whatever, people will be flogging him for crowing today about how there are “only” 546. Democrats will spend the rest of the year running ads about it, to great effect.

People are willing to tolerate Trump antics when the economy’s roaring and things are relatively quiet but the circus isn’t fun when he’s tweeting stuff like this amid trading being halted on Wall Street due to selloffs and the surgeon general talking about shifting to a “mitigation” approach to the virus:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1236979946175725568

One small thing he could do is lead by example in his own activities. Start canceling rallies until the crisis is over. Instead he said yesterday that the rallies will go on, although none are scheduled right now. (Bernie Sanders is also being irresponsible about this, although Bernie’s campaign may be over tomorrow night.) Here he is today shaking hands with a crowd of people in Florida. Isn’t this guy supposed to be a germaphobe?

Scott Gottlieb was appointed by Trump to be commissioner of the FDA in 2017 before leaving the job in 2019. Here’s how seriously he’s taking this:

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, I think no state and no city wants to be the first to basically shut down their economy. But that’s what’s going to need to happen. States and cities are going to have to act in the interest of the national interest right now to prevent a broader epidemic.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Shut down their economy? You mean–

DR. GOTTLIEB: Close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events. I think we need to think about how do we provide assistance to the people of these cities who are going to be hit by hardship, as well as the localities themselves to try to give them an incentive to do this. Right now, if there’s no economic support to do this, you don’t want to be the first to go. And I think you’re seeing that. This exposes one of the challenges of our federal system that we leave a lot of authority to state and local officials. And there’s a good- there’s good reasons why. But in a situation like this, we want them to act not just in their local interests, but the national interests, I think we need to think about both trying to coerce them. We can’t force them but also try to provide some incentives in terms of support. And we’re going to end up with a very big federal bailout package here for stricken businesses, individuals, cities and states. We’re better off doing it upfront and giving assistance to get them to do the right things than do it on the back end after we’ve had a very big epidemic.

The White House is already discussing a fiscal stimulus, probably with a focus on temporary paid sick leave for workers in order to incentivize them to stay home if they feel ill. Gottlieb’s worried that the disease is spreading so quickly that hospitals will be overwhelmed by a surge in severe cases. The only way to slow it down is to encourage “social distancing.” Like, say, by canceling political rallies. And not reminding people that we “only” have 546 cases lest they think, “Hey, what’s the big deal?”

I don’t know what Pence or advisors like Fauci can do about solving the mixed-messaging problem. If Trump was capable of a more sober public stance, he would have shifted to it already. “He has expressed an astonishing lack of knowledge while at the same time claiming to be a medical savant,” said the Times, summarizing his recent statements. “He has treated the crisis as a partisan battle, wearing his red Keep America Great campaign cap to the C.D.C. and calling the governor presiding over the state with the highest death toll a ‘snake.’ He even admitted that he wanted to leave passengers stranded on a cruise ship rather than see statistics for the number of cases on American soil go up because it would look bad.” Trump critics are often criticized for being hung up on “character issues,” as if the problem with his behavior is the Stormy Daniels hush money. It isn’t. Even a president of “bad character” would have long ago moved towards a more responsible approach in what he says about the virus, if only for reasons of self-interest. Trump’s particular problem is above my pay grade to say, but it’s real and it’s going to prolong the crisis by leading vulnerable people to underestimate their personal risk from the disease. They’re going to pay a price, and then he’s going to pay a price in November. He should avoid public messaging about this from now on.