As death toll rises, Trump's failed prediction comes into focus

Trump made a prediction exactly one month ago today: the United States would see no more than 110,000 fatalities from the pandemic. That was wrong, too.
Image: TOPSHOT-US-HEALTH-VIRUS
A body is moved from a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue to a vehicle at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, in Brooklyn, New York on April 8, 2020.Bryan R. Smith / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Exactly seven weeks ago today, Donald Trump said he believed the overall American death toll from the coronavirus pandemic would be between 50,000 and 60,000 people. It wasn't long before the president's forecast was exposed as tragically wrong, but that didn't stop him from repeating the same mistake, over and over again, for no apparent reason.

The number of U.S. fatalities would be 65,000, he said. Or maybe 70,000. Make that 90,000. Or it could be 100,000.

May 8, exactly one month ago today, Trump appeared on Fox News, strained to pat himself on the back, and predicted that the death toll could go as high as 110,000. That was wrong, too.

The number of coronavirus deaths in the United States surpassed 110,000 Saturday, according to NBC News' accounting of virus data. The nation has seen 1,916,237 cases and 110,041 deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the data.

The NBC News report was published over the weekend. The totals are a little higher as of this morning.

The problem, of course, is not just that the president peddled a series of bizarre predictions that turned out to be wrong. The more significant problem is that Trump has effectively declared victory and shifted his focus away from the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal reported late last week:

The White House coronavirus task force is meeting less frequently, the government's top infectious disease expert is getting little face time with President Trump, and the administration's virus-testing coordinator is returning to his previous job. U.S. coronavirus deaths have surpassed 100,000 and health experts say the pandemic remains a serious concern, but Mr. Trump and his advisers have made a strategic decision to shift focus, according to administration officials and others familiar with the matter. The president and his aides have turned to issues they believe will animate the president's conservative base ahead of the election while projecting confidence that the country is recovering economically, the people said.

The article quoted one presidential adviser saying, "I just think the fight has moved on."

The virus, however, doesn't much care whether the White House remains engaged or not. According to a New York Times analysis, the number of states where infection numbers are rising currently stands at 21. That's nearly half the country.

And yet, the president nevertheless stood in the Rose Garden on Friday morning, and said that the United States is "largely through" the crisis. Why? Apparently because he says so.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we've heard similarly triumphant rhetoric from Trump before. In mid-May, the president declared, "We have met the moment, and we have prevailed." (He later clarified that he was referring to testing, which was also wrong.)

As we discussed at the time, George W. Bush never actually said, "Mission Accomplished," despite his association with the ignominious phrase. It was the text on a banner above Bush's head in 2003 when the then-president declared the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq, and his presidency was haunted by the phrase as conditions in the Middle East deteriorated.

The significance lingered: the Republican's two-word banner came to represent premature celebration amidst disastrous circumstances. As regular readers know, it quickly became a warning to future presidents who might be tempted by hubris.

Trump has repeatedly failed to heed that warning, especially in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The president claimed on Feb. 2, in reference to the virus, "We're going to see what happens, but we did shut it down, yes." A few weeks later, he added, "[W]hen 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."

In early March, Trump went so far as to brag, "This came unexpectedly a number of months ago. I heard about it in China. It came out of China, and I heard about it. And made a good move: We closed it down; we stopped it."

If these aren't "Mission Accomplished" moments, they're certainly rhetorical cousins of the phrase. In fact, with Bush never having uttered the words, Trump's COVID-19 declarations are arguably quite a bit worse.

And yet, the current president can't seem to help himself.