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On coronavirus, Trump reportedly has a new 'cure' in mind

Trump's preoccupation with hydroxychloroquine didn't pan out, but he's now reportedly enthusiastic about "an extract from the oleander plant."
Image: Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on Hurricane Michael in the Oval Office on Oct. 10, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

The Washington Post recently ran an article that emphasized how "predisposed to magical thinking" Donald Trump is. The president isn't swayed by evidence or expertise, so much as he latches on to dubious nonsense he wants to will into existence.

Take the coronavirus pandemic, for example. The responsible course was difficult, but obvious: Trump needed to implement a national, coordinated response, built around stay-at-home orders, an aggressive testing regime, an ambitious contact-tracing system, and related mitigation efforts. Instead, the president thought there was an easy way out: hydroxychloroquine would simply serve as a miracle cure, putting a swift end to the crisis.

When reality intervened, Trump, true to form, apparently went searching for a different quick fix. The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that Trump had taken an interest in "a botanical extract called oleandrin as a treatment for the coronavirus." Axios had a related report yesterday, fleshing out in more detail the extent to which the president is focused on this.

To the alarm of some government health officials, President Trump has expressed enthusiasm for the Food and Drug Administration to permit an extract from the oleander plant to be marketed as a dietary supplement or, alternatively, approved as a drug to cure COVID-19, despite lack of proof that it works.... The experimental botanical extract, oleandrin, was promoted to Trump during an Oval Office meeting in July.

Evidently, the idea has been touted by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who believes all sorts of weird things, and Trump backer Mike Lindell, who owns a pillow company and who "recently took a financial stake" in a company that develops the experimental botanical extract.

Lindell has reportedly helped arrange for Trump to have an Oval Office discussion with Andrew Whitney, a biopharmaceuticals executive on the board of a company called Phoenix Biotechnology. Whitney reportedly has "a limited health background," but according to Axios, he's nevertheless told administration officials that oleandrin "cures COVID-19 in two days."

A senior administration official familiar with the internal conversations added, "The involvement of the Secretary of HUD and in pushing a dubious product at the highest levels should give Americans no comfort at night about their health and safety during a raging pandemic."

At a superficial level, I don't much care that Trump occasionally pries himself away from his television long enough to have conversations with random people. I don't even care that the president is inclined to believe there are miracle cures out there, waiting to be uncovered, just in time to give his re-election prospects a boost.

I do care, however, about what transpires, as a matter of policy and governing, in and around the West Wing. It matters that the president has access to some of the world's most impressive scientists, whom he's inclined to ignore. It matters that Trump has been known to bark orders at the FDA, pressing the agency to examine alleged COVID-19 treatments that aren't bolstered by scholarly research.

It matters that Trump seems to reject the steps he should be taking, and instead prioritizes his "magical thinking" above real science.

Axios added, "Senior administration officials familiar with the internal conversations around oleandrin have raised concerns about the way this botanical extract -- pushed by Andrew Whitney of Phoenix Biotechnology -- is being promoted at the highest levels of the Trump administration."

They're not the only ones concerned with such a dynamic.