White House line on virus testing manages to get a little worse

"If we stop testing right now," Donald Trump said yesterday, "we'd have very few cases, if any." Mike Pence's line wasn't much better.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence walk from the Oval Office to speak about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, on April 27, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP
By Steve Benen

As yesterday morning got underway, Donald Trump published a tweet on coronavirus testing that reflected the White House's message of the day. The principal reason the United States has so many virus cases, the president claimed, is that the country is doing lots of testing.

CNN's Daniel Dale noted soon after, "The president has created a construct in which all increases in confirmed coronavirus cases are additional evidence of how great he has done."

Quite right. With more than 2.1 million confirmed cases in the U.S., and more than 116,000 fatalities, Trump appears eager to find a way to put a positive spin on a tragic failure. This is what he's come up with: the tallies only appear bad as a result of an ambitious testing program -- for which Trump apparently wants credit.

Not long after the president's tweet, Vice President Mike Pence peddled the same line to a group of governors, whom he urged to take the message to the public: the ongoing infection rates can and should be attributed to a rise in testing. The New York Times reported:

"I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing," Mr. Pence said on a call with governors, audio of which was obtained by The New York Times. "And that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that's more a result of the extraordinary work you're doing."

The problem is, the line isn't true -- and as the ostensible head of the White House's efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Pence really ought to know it isn't true.

In fact, the NYT's report added, "[S]even-day averages in several states with coronavirus outbreaks have increased since May 31, and in at least 14 states, positive cases have outstripped the average number of tests that have been administered." A Washington Post analysis published yesterday pointed in the same direction: "[T]he increase in new coronavirus cases isn't just a function of testing."

There's no great secret as to what's driving this: the White House is prioritizing widespread re-openings, and in several states, those re-openings appear to be pushing infection rates higher. The administration expects the re-openings to continue unabated, so officials in the West Wing are looking at testing numbers as a way to explain away discouraging news.

Making matters slightly worse, Pence isn't the only one who's wrong. "If we stop testing right now," Trump said yesterday, "we'd have very few cases, if any."

If it seems like he keeps saying stuff like this, it's not your imagination. In early May, the president argued, "If we did very little testing, we wouldn't have the most cases." In mid-May, he added, "If we didn't do any testing, we would have very few cases. [Reporters] don't want to write that. It's common sense."

Except it's neither common nor sensible. As we discussed a month ago, if we didn't do any testing, we'd have lots of cases, but we wouldn't know about them. By Trump's reasoning, we'd have few instances of breast cancer if only we stopped doing mammograms. We'd also wipe out glaucoma by ending eye exams. Ignorance is apparently the cure-all we've been waiting for.

We're months into a deadly crisis. If there's an excuse for such willful ignorance at the White House, I can't think of it.