Trump contradicts White House line on 'slowing down' virus testing

The White House insisted Trump was kidding about ordering a deliberate slow down to coronavirus testing. This morning, he said the opposite.
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seattle
A physician administers a test for coronavirus at a mobile testing site run by Swedish Medical Center in Seattle on April 29, 2020.David Ryder / Reuters file

It started with a bizarre unscripted moment during his Saturday night rally in Tulsa. "Testing is a double-edged sword," Donald Trump told supporters, adding, "When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases, so I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"

As we discussed yesterday, it raised a frightening possibility: perhaps the Trump administration, at the president's request, deliberately scaled back coronavirus testing for public-relations purposes, indifferent to the public-health consequences.

White House officials quickly insisted that Trump was simply kidding -- the remarks were "made in jest," Kayleigh McEnany insisted yesterday -- which was itself problematic. That explanation has now been rejected by the president himself. Politico reported this morning:

President Donald Trump insisted on Tuesday that he was serious when he revealed that he had directed his administration to slow coronavirus testing in the United States -- shattering the defenses of senior White House aides who argued Trump's remarks were made in jest.

Pressed on whether he was joking about telling officials to "slow the testing down," the Republican told reporters this morning, "I don't kid. Let me just tell you. Let me make it clear."

Part of the problem, however, is that the president has done everything but "make it clear."

When Scripps Networks' Joe St. George explicitly asked Trump yesterday afternoon whether he asked to slow down virus testing, the president replied, "Uhh, if it did slow down, frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves if you want to know the truth. We've done too good a job."

In a separate interview yesterday afternoon, he was asked whether the flap was over a tongue-in-cheek comment. Trump said in response, "No. It's semi tongue-in-cheek. I say it all the time. I know some people thought it was tongue-in-cheek. It's unfair."

All of which set the stage for this morning, when, asked once again what in the world he was talking about, the president boasted, "I don't kid."

Remember, it would've been easy for Trump to simply echo the line presented by his own White House and say he was kidding. In fact, I largely expected him to explain away the controversy by saying he was being "sarcastic" -- a word he frequently misuses in situations like these.

But the president apparently wants the public to believe that he actually instructed administration officials to slow down coronavirus testing -- even as the pandemic crisis intensifies -- in order to help make the United States look better.

For what it's worth, Trump routinely has no idea what's going on around him -- he remains an unreliable narrator about his own presidency -- and he may not know whether he directed aides to slow down virus testing or not. It's also quite possible that he told officials to curtail testing, they nodded politely, and proceeded to ignore the president's latest nonsense.

But amidst the avalanche of nonsense, a core truth appears to be coming into focus: Trump's opposition to coronavirus testing has gone from implicit to explicit. That's an indefensible position given the circumstances, but the president doesn't appear to care.