Despite failures, Trump moves virus goalposts (for the 7th time)

When a president finds it necessary to revise a projected death toll seven times in two months, there's a problem.
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

Donald Trump's approach to the coronavirus pandemic has never been especially thoughtful, but for those hoping to see the president act responsibly, this week has been especially discouraging. Americans heard him say, for example, that the virus is "dying out," despite the evidence that proves otherwise.

The president also spoke at some length with the Wall Street Journal, and during the interview, Trump's posturing was even more indefensible. He suggested, for example, that Americans who wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus might be doing so as a political statement against him personally -- ignorance and narcissism can be a toxic combination -- before adding, "I personally think testing is overrated, even though I created the greatest testing machine in history. I've created the greatest testing machine in history. And I think testing is overrated.... In many ways, it makes us look bad."

None of this made any sense.

But of particular interest was the president's willingness to share a new projection of how many American lives will be lost as a result of the pandemic.

"If I didn't act, we would have had 3 million deaths. And instead we're at 110,000. And we could be heading to a number that's, you know, higher than 150,000 to 200,000, it could be ending all now depending on how it goes."

As is too often the case, there's a fair amount of nonsense permeating throughout the answer. The idea, for example, that the death toll may simply stop growing immediately, "depending on how it goes," is unfortunately not an assertion to be taken seriously.

But just as notable is the fact that Trump has now moved the goalposts on his fatality expectations for the seventh time. As regular readers may recall, it was on April 20 -- two months ago tomorrow -- when the president said he believed the overall American death toll from the pandemic would be between 50,000 and 60,000 people. Later that week, the president's forecast had already been exposed as tragically wrong.

Exactly one week later, on April 27, Trump said the overall American death toll would "probably" be between 60,000 and 70,000 people. It took about four days for this projection to be discredited, too.

On April 29, the president suggested the number of fatalities in the United States could be as low as 65,000. Predictably, we soon after passed that projected total.

On May 3, Trump acknowledged that he was moving the goalposts again. "I used to say 65,000," the Republican said, pointing to a total he promoted just a few days earlier. "And now I'm saying 80,000 or 90,000."

At the same event, the president upped the projection once more: "Look, we're going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people."

A few days later, the Republican said fatalities could reach 110,000 -- a total the United States eclipsed earlier this month. As of this week, Trump is acknowledging the possibility of 200,000 deaths, and while everyone can certainly hope the actual number is much lower, on our current trajectory, some modeling forecasts have suggested we could reach that level by the early fall.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, when I say I don't know why Trump keeps peddling these predictions, I'm not being coy or facetious. I honestly have no idea. There is no upside to a president, every few days, presenting a new projected death toll, seeing the actual number climb, and then starting the process anew.

Obviously, we're dealing with an unfolding crisis and our collective understanding of the details is changing frequently. But when a president finds it necessary to revise a projected death toll seven times in two months, there's a problem.