As Trump downplays virus threat, admin struggles to defend him

Trump apparently felt compelled to tell the public that "99%" of coronavirus cases are "totally harmless." That's absurd - but his team won't admit it.
Image: Major Cities In The U.S. Adjust To Restrictive Coronavirus Measures - May 4, 2020
A medical worker walks towards a special coronavirus intake area at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York on May 4, 2020.Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus threat grew more serious, Donald Trump reflexively downplayed the danger, repeatedly assuring Americans there was nothing to fear. It wasn't long before it became clear just how wrong the president was.

But there's no reason to see the problem as a months-old dynamic that has since been resolved. On the 4th of July, for example, Trump apparently felt compelled to tell the public that "99%" of U.S. coronavirus cases are "totally harmless."

Everything we know about the pandemic suggests this is absurd, though Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, couldn't bring himself to say so yesterday.

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Hahn, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he was "not going to get into who's right and who is wrong" when pressed repeatedly about Trump's comments Saturday. But he called the virus and recent surge in cases "a serious problem that we have."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but when you lead the FDA, helping the public know the difference between fact and fiction is part of the job. Hahn, however, realizes that telling the public the truth would put his job in jeopardy -- because that's how Trump-era politics works.

Nevertheless, the Associated Press reported that the president's comments do not "reflect the suffering of millions of COVID-19 patients. The World Health Organization, for one, has said about 20% of those diagnosed with COVID-19 progress to severe disease, including pneumonia and respiratory failure. Whatever the numbers turn out to be, it’s clear that the threat is not limited to the merest sliver of those who get the disease."

A New York Times fact-check added yesterday, "No matter how you define harmless, most public health experts and respected coronavirus disease models would flatly contradict Mr. Trump’s assessment."

And yet, there was White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Fox News this morning, endorsing the president's rhetoric, and making the case that outside of at-risk populations, "the risks are extremely low, and the president's right with that and the facts and statistics back us up there."

Given the public-health threat, I kind of wish Meadows had stuck to the "not going to get into who's right and who is wrong" line.