Trump tries un-admitting that he misled US, downplayed pandemic

Step One: Trump misleads the public about a life-or-death threat. Step Two: Trump admits he misled the public. Step Three: Trump tries un-admitting it.
Image: Trump attends ABC News town hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
President Donald Trump takes the stage at an ABC News town hall event in Philadelphia on Sept. 15, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Step One was the original deception. Donald Trump knew in early February how serious the coronavirus threat was, but he chose to deceive the public anyway. As regular readers know, we know this for certain because the president admitted it -- on the record and on tape -- to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward.

Trump wasn't ignoring the experts and he wasn't incapable of understanding the seriousness of the situation. The Republican understood the dire circumstances facing the United States and he made a conscious and deliberate decision to deceive the people of his own country about a life-or-death crisis.

Step Two was the concession. Last week, asked directly whether he'd misled the American public, Trump told reporters, "[P]erhaps that's so." What followed was a spirited presidential effort to justify his deception.

All of which led to Step Three: Trump trying to un-admit that to which he'd already confessed.

President Donald Trump told a voter that he did not downplay the coronavirus in the early days of his administration's Covid-19 response -- even though he has been heard on tape saying he did -- during an ABC News town hall Tuesday.

"If you believe it's the president's responsibility to protect America, why would you downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities?" a voter asked Trump. The president replied, "Yeah, well, I didn't downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action."

At the risk of sounding picky, Trump literally said on tape, in reference to the pandemic, "I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down." The concession had the benefit of being true: the Republican really did downplay the COVID-19 threat several dozen times.

It's far too late for gaslighting; we've all heard the tape.

At the same ABC News event, Trump said the coronavirus is "going away," even without a vaccine. When George Stephanopoulos was incredulous, the president added, "You'll develop -- you'll develop herd -- like a herd mentality. It's going to be -- it's going to be herd-developed, and that's going to happen. That will all happen."

For now, let's put aside the fact that the phrase is "herd immunity," not "herd mentality." Let's also sidestep the fact that by arguing that the virus is "going away," the president was once again downplaying the threat. Let's instead emphasize the fact that Trump was describing a strategy in which the virus "goes away" by having much of the country get infected.

It's an approach in which the government effectively ends its efforts to stop the spread of the virus, and the death toll possibly climbs into the millions. Is this really what the president believes "will happen"?

In case this weren't quite enough, an undecided voter at last night's town-hall event asked Trump about the importance of mask-wearing during the pandemic. He responded by criticizing Joe Biden for failing to implement a national policy -- as if his opponent weren't a private citizen -- before adding, "There are a lot of people think that masks are not good."

When Stephanopoulos asked to whom he was referring, Trump replied, "I'll tell you who those people are -- waiters. They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me, and they're playing with the mask...I'm not blaming them...I'm just saying what happens. They're playing with the mask, so the mask is over, and they're touching it, and then they're touching the plate. That can't be good."

Finally, toward the end of the event, the host asked Trump whether there was more he could have done to stop the spread of the virus. "I don't think so," the Republican replied, suggesting he believes his response was, in effect, flawless.

Remember, the president had to realize that he'd face basic questions like these about an ongoing crisis. He also had plenty of time to work with his aides to come up with decent answers to obvious lines of inquiry.

This, evidently, is what Trump and the White House came up with.