Trump points to South Korea comparison he should probably avoid

Trump said South Korea called the White House to say that US testing procedures "are amazing." That doesn't make any sense.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump Visits South Korea - Day 1
South Korean President Moon Jae-In and President Donald Trump walk during a welcoming ceremony held at the presidential Blue House on Nov. 7, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea.Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images file

The comparisons between South Korea's response to the COVID-19 crisis and the United States' is relevant. While the size of the two countries varies considerably, both countries are industrialized economies, which reported their first coronavirus case on the exact same day (Jan. 21).

It's not exactly a secret that South Korea has had more success in stemming the infection rate. In fact, our ally's success seems to have annoyed Donald Trump -- to the point that he keeps trying to argue that officials in Seoul haven't been as aggressive as the White House.

"[W]e've done more testing than South Korea," the American president said this week. "Now, you're not going to read that in the newspapers because they don't like to write things like that. But I'd love you to say that one more time because that's a big number. We've done more than South Korea in a short period of time. We're doing more now than South Korea, by a lot."

At a briefing yesterday, Trump repeated the boast, adding that South Korean officials actually called the White House to say that U.S. testing procedures "are amazing."

It's possible that this call is real, but it seems unlikely. The Republican has an unsettling habit of describing conversations that only occurred in his mind and presenting them to the public as if they were real. He also loves to point to "anonymous validators" who mysteriously tell him how right he is.

But the most important reason it's so difficult to believe that Seoul would call the White House to celebrate American testing procedures is that our system pales in comparison. The New York Times published a good report this week on South Korea's successes, which noted a highly relevant detail:

South Korea has tested far more people for the coronavirus than any other country, enabling it to isolate and treat many people soon after they are infected. The country has conducted over 300,000 tests, for a per-capita rate more than 40 times that of the United States.

For the White House, the raw numbers of tests are what matters -- and should serve as the basis for boasts. But on a per-capita basis, South Korea has not only done far more testing than us -- the country has roughly one-sixth the population of the United States -- it also began its aggressive testing process much sooner.

A Washington Post report added, "South Korea acted quickly to begin testing citizens, tracing all possible contacts. The government urged medical companies to quickly produce tests, while opening 600 test centers and 50 drive-through testing centers. The result was that Korea immediately caught many cases and thus did not need to shut down vast segments of its economy."

The Trump administration's mistakes on testing were among its most critical errors. That the president sees this as an area for boasts is ridiculous.