A line on the coronavirus outbreak Trump may come to regret

Trump explicitly said the total number of U.S. coronavirus cases will soon go from 15 to "close to zero." That's dangerously untrue.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump with members of the President's Coronavirus Task Force speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Feb. 26, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

Early on during Wednesday's White House briefing on the coronavirus outbreak, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar stressed an important and accurate point. "[W]hat every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true: The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, and we can expect to see more cases in the United States," the cabinet secretary explained.

Shortly thereafter, the CDC's Anne Schuchat added that while the United States currently has "low levels" of confirmed coronavirus cases, "we do expect more cases."

And then it was Donald Trump's turn, at which point Americans heard their president say largely the opposite.

"[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."

It wasn't exactly George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment, but Trump's unscripted comments were certainly its rhetorical cousin.

As conditions in Iraq deteriorated in the Bush/Cheney era, the death toll mounted, and the arguments in support of the invasion evaporated, the Republican's two-word banner came to represent premature celebration. As we've discussed, it quickly became a warning to future presidents, tempted by hubris.

"Going to be down to close to zero" is a phrase cut from the same cloth.

Part of the oddity of Trump's line was its obvious counting error: the president doesn't seem to have any idea how many confirmed coronavirus cases there are in his own country. "We have a total of 15," he said. "We took in some from Japan -- you heard about that -- because they're American citizens, and they're in quarantine. And they're getting better too. But we felt we had an obligation to do that. It could have been as many as 42."

There are currently at least 60 cases. (I say "at least" because testing is not yet widespread, and the actual number may be higher.) It's a straightforward tally the president seemed reluctant to acknowledge, though it remains true anyway.

But it was the other part of Trump's claim that remains bewildering: he explicitly said the total number of U.S. cases will soon go from 15 to "close to zero." That's not just wrong, it's also the opposite of what leading officials from his own team had just said at the same briefing, while he was standing there.

It's likely that the president made the claim for political reasons: if the number of cases will soon be "close to zero," it's proof that he and his administration are succeeding in dealing with the threat. But therein lies the problem: even if Trump's principal concern is politics and public perceptions, the more the number of confirmed cases rises, the worse his ridiculous assertion will appear.

What's more, while this may have been the most brazen of the president's coronavirus falsehoods, there have been plenty of others, many of which are nearly as absurd.

To be sure, Donald Trump faced a credibility crisis before the coronavirus outbreak, after years of breathtaking dishonesty about matters large and small. But as the pressure rises and public anxiety grows, the president has positioned himself as someone who cannot be counted on to provide accurate information to his own constituents.