Trump moves the goalposts on the pandemic's U.S. death toll

After saying last week that the death toll could be as low as 50,000, Trump should've learned a lesson about overly rosy projections. He didn't.
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Medical personnel move a deceased patient to a refrigerated truck serving as make shift morgues at Brooklyn Hospital Center on April 9, 2020 in New York City.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

New York's Olivia Nuzzi asked the final question at yesterday's White House press briefing, and it was a doozy: "If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be reelected?"

The reaction to the question from assorted far-right websites was unkind, but Donald Trump didn't seem to take issue with the premise. He replied:

"So, yeah, we've lost a lot of people. But if you look at what original projections were -- 2.2 million -- we're probably heading to 60,000, 70,000. It's far too many. One person is too many for this. And I think we've made a lot of really good decisions."

The president went on to try to defend the White House's record, concluding, "I think we've done a great job."

By any fair measure, looking for evidence of Team Trump doing "a great job" addressing the crisis is a difficult exercise, but let's not brush past too quickly the new numbers the president presented to the press and the public.

Exactly one week earlier, Trump held a briefing and shared his expectations for the pandemic's U.S. death toll: "[W]e're going toward 50, I'm hearing, or 60,000 people. One is too many. I always say it: One is too many. But we're going toward 50- or 60,000 people.... We could end up at 50 to 60. Okay?"

That was last Monday. This Monday, the goalposts shifted: 50,000 to 60,000 has become 60,000 to 70,000.

The obvious problem with last week's projection is that it was obviously far too optimistic. Within four days of Trump saying the U.S. death toll could end up as low as 50,000, the number of fatalities cleared that threshold and kept going.

Which apparently meant it was time for a new bar.

The lesson the president should've learned last week is that sharing overly rosy projections with the public is unwise. But Trump appears to have missed that lesson entirely, concluding that the smarter tack is to quietly move the goalposts and hope no one notices.

Except, this strategy isn't likely to go well, either. The U.S. death toll will clear 56,000 today, and barring a miracle, projections show the number will climb above 60,000 next week, if not sooner.

Will Trump appear before the cameras next week and declare. "We're probably heading to 70,000, 80,000"?