President Trump on Friday excoriated an NBC reporter for pressing him on whether he was being overly optimistic about the government’s ability to deliver drugs to treat coronavirus. The exchange epitomized just how out of tune Trump is with actual developments and his top health officials.
At the daily press briefing, Trump played up the promise of a malaria drug to possibly treat coronavirus. He was asked about its application to other similar diseases like SARS, for which he said he thought the drug had been “fairly effective.”
But then Dr. Anthony S. Fauci stepped in to qualify things.
“You’ve got to be careful when you say ‘fairly effective,’” Fauci told Fox News’s John Roberts. “It was never done in a clinical trial that compared it to anything. It was given to individuals and felt that maybe it works.”
In the next exchange, NBC’s Peter Alexander noted that Trump had said the day before about some of the drugs “we’re in really good shape on, and that’s for immediate delivery — immediate — like as fast as we can get it.”
Trump watered that down somewhat Friday, acknowledging there is a process to approving drugs for the new purpose. But he added, “I am a man that comes from a very positive school when it comes to, in particular, one of these drugs.” He added: “People may be surprised by the way there would be a game-changer.”
Alexander noted that Fauci has sung a very different tune on this topic, though, saying here is no “magic drug.” Alexander suggested Trump might agree, but before he could finish his question, Trump cut in.
“Well,” Trump said, “you know I think we only disagree a little bit. I disagree. Maybe and maybe not. Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t. We have to see.”
Alexander countered: “Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things, maybe giving Americans a false sense of hope?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Trump said.
Alexander noted it was not yet an approved drug.
“Such a lovely question,” Trump shot back. He tried to say he agreed with Fauci — despite what he had said just a moment before — but then again offered a more optimistic tone than the doctor has about the drug.
“I feel good about it. That’s all it is — just a feeling. [I’m a] smart guy,” Trump said, adding: “We have nothing to lose. You know the expression: What the hell do you have to lose?”
Alexander responded with what might seem like an innocuous question: “What you said Americans were scared, though? Nearly 200 dead. Fourteen thousand are sick. Millions, as you witness, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter; that’s what I say,” Trump said. “I think it’s a very nasty question. And I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism.”
He added: “Let me just say something: That’s really bad reporting. And you want to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows? I’ve been right a lot.”
But here’s the thing: Alexander rightly noted that Trump was saying something that medical experts like Fauci have strained to avoid — that this drug could be the kind of “game-changer” Trump actually volunteered that he disagreed with that and said it might be. There is a real difference in what they are saying, and it’s completely fair for a reporter to ask Trump to account for that.
There’s also the backstory here. Trump has, in fact, repeatedly made statements about things that lay ahead in the fight against coronavirus, and they often haven’t panned out. To wit:
While Trump may not be downplaying coronavirus as much as he used to, he sure is overplaying some of the measures that can be used to combat it. Alexander was right to press him on that point, and Trump’s eruption at him for pointing out the mixed messages between Trump and Fauci really says it all.
Trump told Alexander he was putting out a “very bad signal” to the American people, but Alexander was simply noting that the signal Trump is emitting was on a much more optimistic frequency than Fauci seems to desire.
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