Trying to defend Trump, Pence rewrites coronavirus history

"I don't believe the President has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus," Mike Pence said. I wish that were true. It's not.
Image: Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, on March 21, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

As the coronavirus crisis started taking shape in the United States, Donald Trump wasn't just optimistic about what would happen, he was confident that he could casually dismiss the threat. In fact, the president spent weeks downplaying the danger to the public.

We now know, of course, that his assessments were dangerously wrong. We also know that these costly mistakes have sparked a political push inside the White House to rewrite history. "I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," Trump boasted two weeks ago, adding, "I've always viewed it as very serious."

There's ample evidence proving otherwise, but the president nevertheless is seeking credit for his foresight, telling reporters, "I think from the beginning my attitude was that we have to give this country -- I knew how bad it was."

The posturing is literally unbelievable, but Vice President Mike Pence got in on the game yesterday during an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, trying to defend Trump's earlier rhetoric.

"I don't believe the President has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus," Pence said. Given examples of the President doing just that -- either by comparing it favorably to the flu or auto accidents or by saying cases would get to zero quickly -- Pence said Trump was trying to maintain a rosy outlook. "The President is an optimistic person," Pence told Blitzer.

This isn't a matter of optimism vs. pessimism; it's a matter of Trump repeatedly telling the public that the threat was less serious than experts believed.

"We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control," Trump said on Jan. 22. "It's going to be just fine." He added on Feb. 2, "We pretty much shut it down coming in from China."

The president tweeted on March 9, "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!" As recently as last week, Trump added, "We've had horrible flus.... But we've never closed down the country for the flu. So you say to yourself, 'What is this all about?'"

This week, we're apparently supposed to believe that reality has started to set in for the man in the Oval Office. Now, the argument goes, the Republican finally realizes the nature of the threat and its consequences.

I hope that's true. There have been hints in this direction before, only to see Trump slide backward, but perhaps this time the president really will abandon his earlier efforts to downplay the seriousness of the crisis.

But even if he does, it won't wipe the slate clean for Trump. Pence's reality-defying defense notwithstanding.