Axios National Political Correspondent, Jonathan Swan, spoke with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, July 28th, 2020, about a number of topics including the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the world, and various points of domestic and foreign policy. The interview premiered on HBO the following Monday, August 3rd, 2020.
Of course, the first topic to be breached was the coronavirus crisis that we are currently facing. President Trump was asked if his philosophy of “positive thinking” is well suited to face such a public health crisis. So much of the criticism around the president and his administration is about communication. The “wishful thinking and the salesmanship” of his rhetoric and way of doing business has led to general confusion, political divisiveness, civil disobedience, and intensifying health crises related to the coronavirus across the nation.
President Trump noted, “If you watch the fake news on television, they don’t even talk about it, but you know there are 188 other countries right now that are suffering.” And pointed to Spain, Moscow, and Brazil as examples of places that may be worse off.
It is certainly true that the media has used coverage of the coronavirus for their own ends of capturing their audience and boosting ratings and ad revenue. However, it does not follow that such reporting is “fake news.” Most middle-of-the-road outlets are simply doing the best that they can with the information at hand. The president’s consistent exaggerations and simplifications are both incredibly exhausting and despicably dangerous, especially in the midst of a public health crisis, and particularly when such rhetoric only leads to the erosion of public trust and the exodus of expertise.
When speaking about the coronavirus the president emphasized “This was sent to us by China, one way or the other, and we’re never going to forget it.” He went on to claim how badly we were beating China “on every point” and how his decision not to go for herd-immunity (which the UK opted for and is currently paying the price) saved millions of lives.
Trump added that, “One person is too much, we’re at 140,000 people…” even though the death toll had reached at least 155,000 by the time of the interview. If “one person is too much”, for President Trump he would have supported our public health experts from the very beginning and at every turn, rather than politicizing their expertise in the name of party and political power. If “one person it too much” for President Trump, maybe he should have been briefed on the most accurate statistics before the interview, so that he could at least pretend a little bit better.
After some banter about the Tulsa rally and supposedly false reporting of its ratings and turnout, as if that is the priority, the conversation was redirected back to the coronavirus. Swan tried to press the point to the president that his supporters love him and hang on his every word. He rightfully pointed out that his supporters view the media or public officials as “fake news” and that many of them are older citizens who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to discerning misinformation. With some very simple follow-up questions, would should be utilized on the president more often, Swan was able to coax this telling exchange from their conversation:
Trump: “I think it’s under control.”
Swan: “How? 1,000 Americans are dying a day.”
Trump: “They are dying, that’s true, it is what it is, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”
When pressed if he really thinks this is as much as we can do to control the coronavirus, the president cast blame on individual governors for not properly responding, despite having been given more power to do so according to Trump.
The Trump camp recently changed its messaging regarding the seriousness of the coronavirus threat and his stance on wearing masks. Although the president denied it, saying it is “too big a thing”, the worry is that he will get “bored” of talking about the virus, or the political winds will shift again and we will take steps backwards rather than forwards. As we get closer to the election in November, among the concerns about phantom voter fraud and a constitutional crisis to potentially delay the election entirely, the threat of coronavirus will increase, especially as more states experience varied spikes respective to their policies.
Another crucial exchange came about regarding a question about testing.
Swan: “When can you commit, by what date, that every American will have access to the same-day testing that you get here in the White House?”
Trump: “Well we have great testing, what we’re doing…”
Swan: “By what date?”
Trump: “Let me explain the testing. We have tested more people than any other country, than all of Europe put together times two…..there are those that say you can test too much.”
Swan: “Who says that?”
Trump: “Oh, just read the manuals, read the books.”
Swan: “Manuals? What manuals?”
Trump: “Read the books. Read the books.”
Swan: “What books?”
President Trump swiftly redirected to talking about the number of tests we have done, the types of tests we have, and all of the things his administration does but gets no credit for. However, let’s take a look at that exchange for but a moment. As he often does, the president tried to use the phrase, “there are those that say…” to lend an air of credibility to his answers, but with a simple follow-up question or two, this device crumbles. When deflection cannot work and he is redirected back to the question he simply doubles-down, simplifies the sentence even more, and tries to move on again. The president only recently started skimming his coronavirus briefs again (though it is more likely that he has someone read them to him) and we are to believe that he has read “manuals” and “books” on the nuances of coronavirus testing? Thankfully, Swan did not let up.
Swan: “It’s difficult, I understand, but when do you think you’ll have it for everyone? What date?”
Trump: “I think that you’ll have that relatively soon.”
Swan: “What does that mean?”
Trump: “I would much rather get back to you.”
Satisfied with that, Swan poised to move on, but the president wanted to add a final point regarding testing and unfortunately he brought up statistics. From there he attempted to make the case that the U.S. is doing better than many other countries, however the key difference is that while the president was touting our success in deaths as a percentage of cases, Swan emphasized that when looking at deaths as a percentage of the population the United States is worse off than many.
Trump: “You can’t do that.”
This is the level of simplicity that we are dealing with as our president. Someone who does not understand or value statistical analysis, yet attempting to talk about it as if they are an expert. This is the exact behavior that we see replicated in his supporters, in the flesh and online.
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?”
Trump: “You have to go by the cases.”
Swan: “Why not as a proportion of population? It’s surely a relevant statistic…”
The two battled like this back and forth for some time regarding deaths as compared to total cases versus the total population. Ultimately, it ended in a much needed subject change, but it seems that the point was made.
You can watch the full interview here.