On risky medications, Trump struggles with how evidence works

Trump could believe a growing body of scientific evidence or assorted phone calls from unnamed pals. He lacks the judgment to choose wisely.
Image: President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with restaurant industry executives about the coronavirus response, in the State Dining Room of the White House
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with restaurant industry executives about the coronavirus response, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, May 18, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

In early April, Donald Trump thought it'd be a good idea to start encouraging Americans to take hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, despite the lack of evidence that it would be effective. At the time, the president went so far as to declare, "If it were me -- in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it. Okay? I may take it."

Six weeks later, the Republican went quite a bit further, surprising many by claiming that he's actually begun taking the unproven medication.

"A lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy. A lot of good things have come out. You'd be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the front-line workers -- before you catch it," Trump said at the White House. "I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it. ... I'm taking it -- hydroxychloroquine -- right now."

The president's timing could be better. There have been a variety of studies of late, each of which questioned the efficacy and safety of trying to treat COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine. For all of the hype from the White House and Fox News, the medication, at best, is useless. At worst, if used improperly by people who don't need it, hydroxychloroquine can apparently be quite dangerous.

And yet, there was Trump, on the heels of recent rhetoric about injecting people with disinfectants, boasting about personally taking risky medication in defiance of the available scientific research.

There's no shortage of relevant angles to a story like this. It's difficult to say with confidence, for example, whether or not the president is lying. It's entirely possible that Trump is merely claiming to take hydroxychloroquine as part of a clumsy public-relations campaign. A White House physician issued a written statement late yesterday, but it did not explicitly say why, of even if, Trump is on the drug. Given the president's habit of brazen dishonesty, there's no reason to take his claim at face value.

What's more, in the event that Trump is telling the truth, we don't yet know the degree to which the medication may affect his health. Given his age and other personal characteristics, the prospects for adverse side effects, including heart problems and hallucinations, are significant.

It's precisely why some health experts described the president's stated decision as "crazy."

Complicating matters, of course, Trump has millions of die-hard followers who don't seem to appreciate his strained relationship with reality. It's not unreasonable to fear some Americans seeing and hearing the president's latest comments, getting the medication, and putting their own lives at risk.

But just as jarring was an exchange toward the end of yesterday's White House event, when a reporter asked Trump for the evidence that hydroxychloroquine has a preventative effect for those concerned about the coronavirus.

"Here we go," the president replied. "Are you ready? Here's my evidence: I get a lot of positive calls about it."

Or put another way, Donald Trump doesn't understand what evidence is or how evidence works. He has a choice between believing the growing body of scientific evidence or assorted phone calls from unnamed pals. The president seems to lack the wherewithal to prioritize the former over the latter.

By any fair measure, the American presidency is among the world's most difficult jobs. Those who hold the office receive a staggering amount of information and are expected to have the critical thinking skills necessary to separate good information from bad. The capacity for sound judgment is often what separates successful presidents from failures.

Trump not only lacks these skills, he flaunts his deficiency, indifferent to the failing he should find embarrassing.