In recent weeks, the White House and its allies have aimed much of their rhetorical fire at China. What started as repeated praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping by President Trump has morphed into blame — most of all for Beijing’s supposed obfuscations about the initial spread of the coronavirus.
“What happened should never, ever have happened,” Trump said on the South Lawn last week. “China should have informed us that they had a problem.” This talking point even made its way into Trump’s fundraising copy. “China has been lying and doing everything they can to cover up the spread of COVID-19 in their country,” read a recent Trump campaign email. “It’s absolutely disgraceful and we can’t stand by and do nothing.”
Meanwhile, denialism has been a centerpiece of Trump’s pandemic response since the arrival of the novel coronavirus in the United States. In March, he suggested he would prefer potentially exposed (and overwhelmingly American) cruise ship passengers not disembark in the United States because “I like the numbers being where they are” — and their arrival on shore would have increased the totals meaningfully. That tendency held even after cases ticked up, with the Daily Beast reporting Wednesday, “The White House has pressed the CDC, in particular, to work with states to change how they count coronavirus deaths and report them back to the federal government, according to two officials with knowledge of those conversations.” These are the hallmarks of an administration that would rather not know the facts and would prefer not to share those it cannot help but learn.
The reality remains ugly and terrifying. In the past few days, at least two White House staffers tested positive for the virus, three members of the federal response team placed themselves in self-quarantine or partial isolation and the number of U.S. fatalities topped 80,000. (As of this posting, it’s now more than 86,000.) Yet it’s hard to forget the blustering dismissals (“Coronavirus is very much under control in the U.S.A.”) and dubious statistical handwaving (“The risk is very, very low”) that have accompanied its spread — not least of all because those dismissals keep coming.
The irony here should be obvious: Even as the president and his pals criticize China for its clear lack of transparency and honesty about the virus, several figures inside the administration and outside are engaged in the exact same game. For months, the American public has been told not to believe the severity of the risks around us. The strategy from the White House and the president’s supporting cast on the right has been to deny, distort, deflect and obstruct the real picture. That this is entirely in keeping with what they accuse China of doing seems to escape them.
The latest twist in this saga centers on the coronavirus death toll, which, having sprouted from dozens to tens of thousands in just two months, has become a target of right-wing attacks. According to many of the president’s enablers, the death we see isn’t the death we think it is. Echoing a conspiracy theory about the CDC’s statistics, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka wrote on his “America First” blog last week, “Not only does this prove that the Chinese virus is not nearly as deadly as originally believed, but it also most likely confirms that many of the deaths previously attributed to the Coronavirus were actually caused by other underlying factors . . .”
In a primetime segment with fellow death-toll skeptic Brit Hume, Fox News host Tucker Carlson also cast doubt, suggesting: “There may be reasons people seek an inaccurate death count. When journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda.” And in one model released by the White House Council of Economic Advisers last week, coronavirus deaths were forecast to drop to zero by the middle of May.
These efforts to understate and confuse are having an impact. A recent Axios/Ipsos poll found 40 percent of Republicans surveyed think that the coronavirus death count is overreported, 17 points higher than the average. Meanwhile, public health experts repeatedly contend that the true lethality of the pandemic is actually much higher than what’s being reported. In testimony delivered from isolation to the Senate on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci explained: “Most of us feel that the number of deaths are most likely higher.” Notably, the panel’s chair, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, presided over the hearing from quarantine after one of his staff members was confirmed positive for the coronavirus.
Simply put, statistical prevarication may have fatal consequences — much as the administration rhetoric warned it did when China was supposedly perpetrating it. As communities move to reopen for business, local officials and armed protesters demand life return to normal and individuals begin to resist social-distancing mandates, the cumulative effect of downplaying the pandemic is likely to cause more damage. On Tuesday, Fauci warned of “suffering and death that could be avoided,” along with “really serious” consequences, should the country move to ease restrictions too soon and without the proper infrastructure in place. Among those to discount his testimony were noted nonexperts on infectious diseases Laura Ingraham and Ben Shapiro.
Americans aren’t just trying to live through a viral catastrophe or gauntlet of unforced errors. They also are battling a dangerous suppression of data and truth from the highest levels in a manner reminiscent of an authoritarian state. As the damage intensifies for communities, front-line and factory workers, the economy and the most vulnerable people, it’s tempting to point the finger elsewhere. But if we’re actually going to preserve the health of Americans, we need to recognize some of our worst problems start at home.