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As US death toll tops 200,000, Trump moves the goalposts (again)

Trump boasted that if domestic fatalities were lower than 200,000, it would be proof that he did "a very good job." The goalposts are now on the move.
A body is moved from a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue to a vehicle at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, in Brooklyn, New York on April 8, 2020.Bryan R. Smith / AFP - Getty Images

As regular readers may recall, it was on April 20 -- five months ago yesterday -- when Donald Trump said he believed the overall American death toll from the pandemic would be between 50,000 and 60,000 people. Later that week, the president's forecast had already been exposed as tragically wrong.

Exactly one week later, on April 27, Trump said the overall American death toll would "probably" be between 60,000 and 70,000 people. It took about four days for this projection to be discredited, too.

On April 29, the president suggested the number of fatalities in the United States could be as low as 65,000. Predictably, we soon after passed that projected total.

On May 3, Trump acknowledged that he was moving the goalposts again. "I used to say 65,000," the Republican said, pointing to a total he promoted just a few days earlier. "And now I'm saying 80,000 or 90,000." At the same event, the president upped the projection once more: "Look, we're going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people."

A few days later, the Republican said fatalities could reach 110,000 -- a total the United States eclipsed over the summer. In June, Trump decided it was time to move the goalposts much further, declaring his belief that the domestic death toll "could be heading" to 200,000, "depending on how it goes."

In fact, at one point, the president boasted that if the number of U.S. fatalities could be lower than 200,000, it would be proof that the White House did "a very good job.”

Tragically, we crossed the 200,000-death threshold over the weekend. Asked about this late last week, the president did his best to characterize failure as a success -- while simultaneously moving the goalposts for the eighth time.

"[I]f you look at the initial projections, it was up to 240, 250 thousand if everybody did their job.... If we did a really good job, with the shutdown, which we did, it would be 240 -- up to 240, 250 thousand people.... We have done a phenomenal job with respect to COVID-19."

Trump went on to say he and his team have "done an incredible job," adding, "The numbers are amazing. We've done a great job.... We have done an incredible job. Throughout the world, I get called by prime ministers and presidents saying, 'Sir, the job you've done is amazing.'"

Asked to identify these unnamed prime ministers and presidents who've praised his catastrophic performance, the Republican abruptly ended the Q&A with reporters.

Nevertheless, the pattern is unmistakable: Trump's standard for success never seems to stay in place for long. It wasn't long ago when Americans were told the domestic death toll could top out at 200,000, and now that this gut-wrenching total has been cleared, the president has some new numbers for us to focus on: 240,000 and 250,000.

We can all hope the United States never reaches these higher death tolls, but if we do, there Trump will stand, assuring us that he's nevertheless succeeded, and it will be time to replant the goalposts once more.