What Trump’s Coronavirus Lie Reveals about the Commander in Chief

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington.

AP / Evan Vucci

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President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington.

“I’ve always viewed it as very serious,” the president said today, after two months of publicly pooh-poohing the epidemic.

During press questioning at the White House today, Donald Trump was asked whether his tone about the coronavirus challenge had suddenly changed. For weeks, he’d been mocking the virus threat—at rallies, in tweets, and in press remarks. But both yesterday and today, he’d suddenly shifted to warning that the public-health and economic problems were real, and would remain so for a long time.

What changed?

Trump denied there had been any shift in tone, and said (as you can see here):

“I have always known. This is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic….

“I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”

This is a flat-out lie.

Setting the lead for many Republican politicians and for most coverage on Fox News, Trump had for many weeks pooh-poohed the idea that the virus should be taken seriously.

  • He has said it was “contained” and “under control” (as McKay Coppins pointed out).
  • He has said “It’s going to disappear” and, “We have very little problem in this country” (as David Leonhardt pointed out).
  • He said three weeks ago that the U.S. had “15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (as the White House briefing transcript shows).
  • He tweeted just eight days ago that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation” (as The Hill pointed out).

From growing global awareness of the disease in January, until his press conference yesterday, March 16, Trump had consistently minimized the medical and economic danger. He frequently likened the virus to the seasonal flu, and at a rally said that criticism of his administration’s virus responses was “a hoax”—indeed, a continuation of the impeachment “hoax” by other means.

That Trump has shifted his tone so dramatically says something about the scale of the disease and its impacts. I hope it says something positive about the upcoming federal commitments to join the effort against it, so far led by governors and mayors.

But that he believes he can baldly zap away all memory of his words and deeds and reinvent himself as the man saving his country from pandemic—another Anthony Fauci, but with executive powers—reveals something about Trump’s mind and character, and something about his assessment of public life.

  • About his mind it suggests: He lives in the moment, and whatever he wants to be true at this instant, is “true” for him, at least while he’s saying it.
  • About his assessment of others it indicates: He is betting he can get away with it. At some level he must know that half the press is weary of writing the 900th story pointing out his falsehoods. The other half is hungry for some way to show its “balance,” and to avoid using the plain word “lie.” And meanwhile the constituency Trump said would stay with him if he “shot someone on Fifth Avenue” may still be aboard.

An assessment on CNN just after the press conference indicated the kind of response Trump might be betting on. The estimable Dana Bash said of Trump’s comments, “He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today and yesterday.” We’ll see what the online stories tonight and the print headlines tomorrow morning say about Trump’s shift.

Will “today and yesterday”—the subdued tone yesterday, the “I have always viewed it as very serious” Orwellian big-lie today—enter public consciousness as the time when Trump “got serious” and “became a leader”? Or as the time when he finally went too far with a blatant lie?

As I write this, in real time, we can’t be sure. I have my own guess, which I hope proves wrong.

Related: Trump Is Peddling Dangerous Disinformation on Coronavirus

Related: The Prognosis: Latest News on Coronavirus & National Security

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