Trump's confusion on display during meeting with pharmaceutical execs

Far from inspiring confidence during a public-health crisis, Trump appeared awfully confused during his televised meeting with pharmaceutical execs.
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President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Feb. 23, 2020.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

In the abstract, White House officials had reason to believe the gathering would be a good idea. Donald Trump, members of the administration's coronavirus task force, and executives from leading American pharmaceutical companies would gather in the West Wing, discuss the national response to the public-health emergency, and the public would see leading officials engaged in trying to solve the problem.

But in practice, what the public actually saw was a confused president.

Throughout the gathering, Trump clearly wanted to hear -- and be able to say -- that a COVID-19 vaccine was right around the corner. "I've heard very quick numbers, that of months," the Republican claimed, pointing to rumors he couldn't identify. "And I've heard pretty much a year would be an outside number. So I think that's not a bad range."

It fell to Dr. Antony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to patiently try to explain the nature of the timeline.

"Let me make sure you get the ... information. A vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that's deployable.... When is it going to be deployable? And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go."

Trump, arms folded, asked pharmaceutical executives whether Fauci was correct. When they agreed, the president added, "Well, I think treatment in many ways might be more exciting." I'm not at all sure what that meant.

CNN's report on the meeting added:

Throughout the meeting, Trump was hyperfocused on pressing industry leaders in the room for a timeline for a coronavirus vaccine and treatment. But experts at the table -- from the administration and the pharmaceutical industry -- repeatedly emphasized that a vaccine can't be rushed to market before it's been declared safe for the public.

It was, at times, exasperating. The more Trump was told how long the entirety of the process -- development, testing, clinical trials, and deployment -- would realistically take, the more he tried to find someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

"So you're talking over the next few months, you could have a vaccine?" the president asked one CEO, who explained that a possible vaccine could exist in a few months, but that it would still need several more months before it's ready for the public.

Trump nevertheless added that one executive was "talking about two months." It led HHS Secretary Alex Azar to again remind the president about the difference between bringing a vaccine to the public in two months and beginning a testing phase in two months.

This came a week after the president told the public that a vaccine is "very close," which also wasn't true, and which also faced pushback from administration officials.

CNN's report added:

A source familiar with the administration's response said the scientists and experts gathered for the meeting were able to convince Trump that it will likely take a year or longer for an effective vaccine to be on the market. "I think he's got it now," the source said.

Maybe, but given the president's propensity for confusion, it's probably unwise to make such an assumption with confidence.