White House fumbles its story on explaining testing 'slow down'

The White House said Trump was kidding when he claimed he wanted to "slow down" coronavirus testing. Given a chance to clarify, he made matters worse.
Image; A cotton swab used in a nasal passage as health care professionals test for COVID-19 at a testing site in Jericho, N.Y. on March 24, 2020.
A cotton swab used in a nasal passage as health care professionals test for COVID-19 at a testing site in Jericho, N.Y. on March 24, 2020.Steve Pfost / Newsday via Getty Images file

Even by Donald Trump standards, his comments about the coronavirus on Saturday night were deeply unfortunate. "Testing is a double-edged sword," the president told supporters in Tulsa, adding, "When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases, so I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"

It raised a frightening possibility: perhaps the Trump administration, at the president's request, deliberately scaled back coronavirus testing for public-relations purposes, indifferent to the public-health consequences.

White House quickly insisted that such an interpretation is wrong, and that Trump was simply kidding during an unscripted moment. It wasn't exactly a compelling explanation: as we discussed this morning, this is a poor time to joke about a key element in the response to a deadly virus, as the death toll in his own country tops 120,000.

But the story now seems to be evolving. CBS News reported that Vice President Mike Pence spoke to a group of governors this morning and said Trump's comments about slowing down testing were merely "a passing observation," but not necessarily meant in jest.

Soon after, the president spoke to Scripps Networks' Joe St. George, and the correspondent asked the right question: "Did you ask to slow [virus testing] down?" Trump replied:

"Uhh, if it did slow down, frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves if you want to know the truth. We've done too good a job."

This wasn't a trick question. It was just two days ago when the president boasted that he'd directed his team to "slow the testing down." Asked if he'd actually done this, it would've been very easy for Trump to simply echo the line presented by his own White House and say he was kidding. In fact, I largely expected him to explain away the controversy by saying he was being "sarcastic" -- a word he frequently misuses in situations like these.

But the president instead did the opposite, saying quite seriously that he sees value in having his administration do less testing, even as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States climbs higher.

And why in the world would he want fewer tests? So that there would be fewer known infections, which he could then use for election-year public-relations purposes.

Americans have seen Trump say all sorts of disturbing things during the pandemic. This is among the most ridiculous.