There was a point last week in which Donald Trump seemed to be reading from a different kind of coronavirus script. The president encouraged people to wear masks. He hedged a little on school openings. Many in the media acknowledged the Republican's shift in "tone."
The trouble, of course, is that Trump can only suppress his worst instincts for brief and fleeting periods.
Just over a week after he began a rebooted effort, driven by rising infection rates and sinking poll numbers, to talk about the virus in terms more in line with medical consensus, Mr. Trump was again making unfounded claims and defending discredited medical experts. It was the sort of eccentric, science-deficient performance that many of his aides believe unnerved the public during the spring and has come to gravely threaten his re-election prospects.
The latest presidential nonsense began -- where else? -- on Twitter earlier this week, with Trump aggressively pushing weird conspiracy theories and a video that falsely claimed hydroxychloroquine can "cure" people of COVID-19. That video was taken down by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, each of which agreed that the content was false and potentially dangerous misinformation, but the president was eager to endorse it anyway.
Yesterday, during a White House press briefing, Trump doubled down, not only ignoring the FDA's judgment on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, but touting someone he saw touting the drug as a "cure."
Trump told reporters, "There was a woman who was spectacular in her statements about it, that she’s had tremendous success with it. And they took her voice off." In context, "they" appeared to refer to tech giants that are trying to prevent the spread of misinformation during a deadly pandemic.
Referring to the same woman he saw in the rejected video, the president went on to say he believes she and her colleagues are "very respected doctors," adding, "I can tell you this: She was on air, along with many other doctors. They were big fans of hydroxychloroquine, and I thought she was very impressive.... I don’t know which country she comes from, but she said that she’s had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients. And I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her."
Pressed further, Trump ended the briefing.
The woman the president was so enamored with is Stella Immanuel, a Houston-based medical professional and minister. Her record includes claims about alien DNA and the effects of having sex with demons while dreaming. Immanuel also recently asked that CNN anchors provide her with their urine so she can test it for hydroxychloroquine.
In fact, a reporter tried to alert Trump to all of this yesterday, reminding him, "Mr. President, the woman that you said is a great doctor in that video that you retweeted last night said masks don’t work and there is a cure for COVID-19, both of which health experts say is not true. She’s also made videos saying that doctors make medicine using DNA from aliens, and that they’re trying to create a vaccine to make you immune from becoming religious."
I'll confess that I haven't researched this thoroughly, but I'm reasonably sure this was the first time the phrase "DNA from aliens" was uttered in the White House press briefing room.
In case this isn't obvious, what's important here is not that some fringe figure peddles fringe beliefs. The internet is filled with obscure voices saying strange things to modest audiences. As a rule, the American mainstream largely ignores those voices, leaving them inconsequential.
What matters now, however, is that the sitting president of the United States would like the public to take fringe voices seriously, even as they peddle bogus public-health claims during a pandemic. I don't care what Stella Immanuel has to say; I care that Trump is telling Americans that Stella Immanuel is "very respected," "very impressive," and has "an important voice."
In early March 2016, several months before Trump's election, Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote something I found memorable: “Among the most important tasks the president has is knowing what to believe, whom to listen to, which facts to trust, and which theories to explore. Trump’s terrible judgment in this regard is one of the many reasons he’s not qualified for the office.”
More than four years later, it's among Trump's single most important flaws. He simply lacks the wherewithal to know the difference between good information and bad, which in turns leaves him incapable of making sound decisions.
Update: During a brief Q&A this morning, the president again said, twice, that he was "very impressed" the Immanuel.