The first sign of trouble came on Feb. 26, when much of the United States saw the coronavirus as a crisis affecting other countries, not ours. Donald Trump told reporters that the responsible thing to do would be to treat COVID-19 "like a flu." The president went on to say that there are other "certain steps" a country could take, but "that won't even be necessary."
He added, "This is a flu. This is like a flu.... It's a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we'll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner."
About a week later, as the threat to Americans grew, Trump published one of the most unfortunate tweets of his term: "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"
In the months that followed, those 546 confirmed cases turned into 7 million, and the 22-person death toll climbed to 210,000. The president not only dropped the "common flu" talking point -- which he privately suggested to Bob Woodward he did not believe -- Trump also began denying ever having said what we all saw and heard him say.
Nearly seven months after his misguided "think about that!" tweet, the Republican has apparently come full circle.
In a comparison that is disputed by public health experts, President Donald Trump on Tuesday likened the coronavirus to the seasonal flu and said we can learn to live with Covid-19. "Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu," tweeted Trump, who has Covid-19 and returned to the White House on Monday after three days in Walter Reed hospital for treatment. "Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!"
As is always the case, the fact that Trump is flubbing all the relevant details matters. We know, for example, that COVID-19 is exponentially more serious than influenza. We also know that the number of flu deaths the president is touting is wrong.
In fact, Facebook, which has been slow at times to deal with the president's public deceptions, removed Trump's message this morning, deeming it misinformation related to the pandemic.
But stepping back, I think there are a few broader takeaways to consider.
First, it's discouraging, to put it mildly, to see Trump backslide. This misguided rhetoric about the flu was indefensible in March -- when, again, he privately contradicted his own claims -- but the fact that the president is bringing the comparison back is evidence of a leader retreating to discredited nonsense, even after his own hospitalization.
Second, this doesn't do Trump any political favors, either. For months, the Republican has responded to questions about a climbing death toll by saying his bold leadership prevented the "plague" from claiming the lives of millions of Americans. Now, however, he's back to equating COVID-19 with influenza that everyone can simply "live with."
Trump can make one pitch or the other, but he shouldn't try to push both lines.
Finally, and most importantly, the more the president downplays the seriousness of the coronavirus threat, the more dangerous it is to the public.
Today, tens of thousands of Americans will test positive for the virus, and several hundred will die. For Trump to tell the citizens of his own country that they need not fear the pandemic, they will survive infections, and the virus is comparable to the flu is to see the president effectively play the role of a public menace.