Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
“Our death totals, our numbers, per million people, are really very, very strong,” President Donald Trump boasted on Thursday, despite the fact that the US ranks far worse than most countries in deaths-per-million people from Covid-19, according to Worldometers. “We’re very proud of the job we’ve done,” Trump gushed.
“Strong” is not the word that comes to mind looking at the country with the world’s highest number of Covid-19 deaths – a number that keeps growing with every passing hour. More than 2,000 people are dying of the disease each day in the US; that’s more than 80 every hour, more than one every minute.
And yet, Trump has already spoken about the pandemic in the past tense and, not surprisingly, showered himself with praise. “We did a spectacular job,” he said, echoing the message from his son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner, who told Fox News on Wednesday that the administration’s response to the coronavirus is a “great success story.”
Incredibly, Trump is repeating his disastrous strategy from the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, when he acted as if the coronavirus was a political and PR problem that could be fixed with empty reassurances and propaganda, rather than a public health crisis demanding smart and forceful action.
Trump’s utterances between January and the first part of March – denying, minimizing and peddling junk science as the unfolding disaster cast its shadow – are now legendary. “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” he said on February 10. It’s all “very much under control,” he said on February 23. On February 27, with 15 cases in the United States, he declared, “In a couple of days we’re going to be down close to zero.”
Those words are indelible, irrefutable proof of his incompetence. So, you’d think after six weeks of trying to recover from that disaster, Trump would avoid repeating the same mistake. Instead, he’s dusting off the old playbook.
“It’s going to go. It’s going to leave,” Trump asserted on Wednesday when a reporter asked him why he thought the virus would be gone without a vaccine. “It’s going to be eradicated,” he continued, without offering any evidence to back up his obviously false assertions.
This week, Trump has embellished, exaggerated and lied, then lied about his lies and spread another layer of lies on top of the old ones. On Tuesday, he said the US would soon be ready to administer 5 million tests per day, only to deny making those claims the next day (It’s all on tape). He even went so far as to claim the President of South Korea called to congratulate him on what a fantastic job he’s doing. (South Korea, which has handled the pandemic far more effectively that the US, diplomatically said it would not discuss its conversations with the Trump administration.) The core message Trump is trying to sell is that he’s done a fantastic job – that the problem is, for the most part, resolved, and that anyone who questions that is lying because they don’t like him.
That Trump cannot resist puffing himself up is nauseating, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to people’s deaths. Other parts of his strategy, however, have a real impact on people’s lives.
Trump allowed national social distancing directions to expire this week, leaving it up to state governors to take charge of when and how to reopen. What is most disturbing is that he is encouraging governors to violate guidelines for reopening the country that he personally announced from the White House two weeks ago.
For a brief moment, Trump took ownership of what was meant to be a careful return to normalcy. He branded the guidelines “Opening Up America Again,” putting his MAGA fingerprints on a public health program. Among other things, the plan called for robust testing and 14 days of declining cases before loosening restrictions.
Those conditions have not been met, and now states are reopening to varying degrees, in violation of White House instructions. The President’s reaction? “We’ve given them tremendous encouragement and support. We’re backing them 100%.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stepped in yet again to curb the President’s claims. He issued a warning to local leaders against “leapfrogging” critical milestones, and called it a “significant risk” to reopen without them.
But the President seems terrified about his dimming reelection prospects and is obviously anxious to see the economy moving again.
If there’s one powerful factor working to mitigate the pernicious impact of Trump’s politically-motivated rush to reopen, it’s that the American public watched what happened when he denied and downplayed the threat of the virus at the onset of the pandemic. Despite protests and a handful of states easing orders to stay at home, the overwhelming majority of Americans think it’s too soon to reopen, according to a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.
Despite Trump’s claim that the number of cases is declining (they climbed from 23,901 to 26,512 the day he said it), a downward trend in is not well established. His claim that the US has “tested more than all countries put together,” along with Kushner’s insistence that we have enough tests – an essential element for safely reopening – are patently false. Not even Congress can get enough tests for its members.
European countries that imposed much stricter lockdown measures than the US, and are further along the pandemic’s trajectory, are reopening gingerly with many watching the United States once again in disbelief.
The mixed messages and self-serving statements from the White House again threaten to unravel what progress has been made in slowing the contagion.
Trump’s attempts to downplay the crisis, along with his declarations of success and confusing U-turns, have produced a disaster for the country. We can only hope the experience has taught the American people one important lesson: Ignore what the President and his acolytes say. Listen to the experts.