He got shredded for saying this by critics last night but it’s nothing new. In February he was reluctant to let passengers trapped on a cruise ship with a coronavirus outbreak come ashore because that would mean the official case count would climb. (“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”) Last week he grumbled during a White House press gaggle that “In a way by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad… we’re going to have more cases [because of more testing].” Yesterday the Financial Times reported that his skepticism about testing goes back even further than we know:
One of Donald Trump’s confidants, who’s regularly in touch with the president, put the blame squarely on Kushner, saying, “Jared had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it. That advice worked far more powerfully on [Trump] than what the scientists were saying. He thinks they always exaggerate.”…
One White House official told the Financial Times that advising Trump is like “bringing fruits to the volcano” to convince it not to erupt: “You’re trying to appease a great force that’s impervious to reason.”
No one’s going to convince him at this point that more testing will benefit Americans *and him* long-term by making it easier to detect and defuse new outbreaks as the country reopens. If we could test everyone, we could get a grip on the epidemic that would facilitate a more robust economic recovery, which in turn might deliver a Trump victory this fall. That’s straightforward; rationally, Trump should be the country’s biggest cheerleader for more testing.
But in his mind, I think, case counts are just a subset of “ratings.” The more tests we do, the more new cases we find. And the more new cases we find, the larger our outbreak is, which Democrats can use against him. His instinct is to suppress information in order to make himself look better, which is both pernicious and deeply foolish given that the trend in deaths would tell us if the crisis is deepening even if we had no numbers on new cases. Watch two short clips, then read on.
Here’s Trump saying that coronavirus testing might be “overrated” pic.twitter.com/4I36rRr7V5
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 14, 2020
TRUMP: “When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases.” pic.twitter.com/tEX1uXQbmp
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 14, 2020
There are two mistakes he’s making by not embracing testing. One is that the public is already sold on the virtues of it. He’s not convincing anyone except hardcore MAGA fans, who don’t need convincing, that testing is overrated. People want more tests.
— ABC News (@ABC) May 15, 2020
That same poll found basically no decline over the past month in the number of people who are concerned that they or someone they know will get COVID-19. Sixty-nine percent of parents with children under 18 said in the same poll that they’re not willing to let their kids go back to school yet. There’s a lot of fear still out there even as states reopen and commerce gingerly resumes. The more testing we do, the more reassured wary consumers will feel that authorities are getting on top of the problem.
And by “authorities,” I mean the federal authorities. Most Americans think this is a job for Trump, not the states. There’s a partisan split, of course — when isn’t there? — but even a sizable minority of Republicans think the feds should be on this.
Which brings us to Trump’s second mistake. The irony of him grumbling that testing is overrated is that the country has made major progress on testing over the last month. Instead of complaining about how it makes the case count look bad, he should be seizing these opportunities to trumpet how much improvement there’s been in the past six weeks. On April 1, the COVID Tracking Project recorded 107,000 tests in the U.S. Check out the numbers this week by comparison:
We’ve tripled capacity and we’re en route to quadrupling it. If he wanted to get into the weeds a little bit, he could start talking up the “positivity rate” in his public statements. Lots of good news there:
About 6.5% of Americans tested for Covid-19 are now testing positive, per the Johns Hopkins coronavirus testing hub, a new low.
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) May 14, 2020
Nationally we’re actually meeting the benchmark for adequate testing right now according to Johns Hopkins. That should be big, big news for a president who’s in a rush to reopen *and* to convince consumers that it’s safe to venture into retail spaces. He could and should also be playing up the fact that we just had a breakthrough with antigen testing, which means our capacity may soon be much larger than it is even now.
But all you hear from him really is bland assurances that we have the most testing, the best testing, and so on.
This would be a perfect moment for him to deputize Deborah Birx to get back out there in front of the cameras and make this case. It may be that much of the country would ignore him if Trump started aggressively promoting our build-out in testing because they don’t trust him. But they trust Birx. They won’t tune her out. A new coronavirus briefing featuring only Birx could be super helpful in pushing the White House’s message on reopening. She’s a reassuring presence so she’s well suited to reassure people that testing has gotten much better. The administration is wasting an opportunity by sidelining her.