September 9, 2020 at 2:12 p.m. CDT
Nineteen days before President Trump held a briefing during which he assured the public that the novel coronavirus would soon vanish from the United States and 20 days before he said that it was “a little bit like the flu,” he told journalist Bob Woodward in an interview that the virus was transmitted by air and was far deadlier than seasonal influenza.
That conversation, on Feb. 7, revealed that Trump knew all along that the coronavirus posed a significant risk and, what’s more, that blocking airborne transmission would help limit the spread. Yet over and over, Trump claimed that the virus was under control, that it would at one point simply disappear and that wearing a mask was a matter of choice — and something that he wouldn’t be doing.
During a news briefing Wednesday after the Woodward reporting was made public, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked about the contradiction between Trump’s private and public comments.
“So, when you hear these tapes, it will not appear that the president lied to the American public about the threat posed by covid?” a reporter asked, referring to the disease caused by the virus.
“The president has never lied to the American public on covid,” McEnany replied. “The president’s been very — the president was expressing calm, and his actions reflect that.”
In fact, his actions in February reflected broad inaction and an obvious effort to link the still-low number of cases to his success in managing the pandemic.
“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,” Trump famously said on Feb. 26.
But it’s important to step back and point out the ridiculousness of McEnany’s initial claim. Trump has lied about the coronavirus repeatedly, just as he has misled the public and misrepresented the data.
The Washington Post’s fact-checking team documented more than 20,000 false or misleading statements by Trump since he took office through early July. Of those, nearly 1,000 were specific to the coronavirus itself.
Trump has said, for example, that:
· The nation’s disproportionately large number of cases is a function of our doing more testing.
· The nation’s mortality rate is among the lowest in the world.
· His ban on travel from Europe “saved millions of lives.”
· The virus would go away once the weather warmed up in April.
· No one predicted the threat posed by a pandemic.
· Ninety-nine percent of infections resolve without any problem.
· Anyone can get a test.
· The nation has more than enough protective equipment to meet needs.
· Treatments such as hydroxychloroquine would prove effective.
That’s a small sampling of the false statements The Post has catalogued. But we’ve also documented statements that directly contradict what Trump admitted to Woodward, such as claims that the coronavirus is not worse than the flu. Dubbing something a lie is subjective, but denying something that you’ve admitted elsewhere is pretty much the textbook definition.
“I think the bottom line here is that the president, by his own admission, in private, on the record, acknowledged the depth of this crisis,” a reporter asked McEnany later, “and yet told the American people something very different. How is that, at its core, not an abject betrayal of the public trust?”
“The president has always been clear-eyed with the American people,” McEnany replied. “He was always clear-eyed about the lives we could lose. Once again, from this podium, he acknowledged that this was serious back in March, that 100,000, 200,000 lives could be lost.”
This is a very typical move for McEnany and the White House, picking out the one example of Trump saying something accurate but ignoring, for example, his repeated claims that the death toll from the virus wouldn’t get any higher than about 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 and so on, week after week.
At another point, she tried to defend Trump’s repeated insistence that the virus would simply disappear at some point.
“No one is lying to the American people,” McEnany said. “One day, covid will go away. I think we can all hope for that day. … One day it will go away. That is a fact."
It’s not a fact. The 1918 Spanish influenza, for example, still circulates. This isn’t simply an academic issue; Trump and McEnany are trying to defend his efforts to play down the pandemic by asserting that he was saying only that it would go away at some point.
But even that isn’t necessarily the case.
To hear McEnany tell it, Trump wasn’t trying to minimize anything anyway.
“The president never downplayed the virus,” she said Wednesday. “Once again, the president expressed calm.”
That is contradicted more than a little by comments Trump made to Woodward in March.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said then. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
We’re left, then, having to choose whom to believe: the president who McEnany assured us would not lie about the pandemic or the press secretary who, several months ago, assured us that she, too, would never lie.