2020 Time Capsule #16: Disinfectant

Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23.
Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23. (Associated Press)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On the day when the Access Hollywood tape came out, one month before the 2016 election, I wrote a “Trump Time Capsule” item whose first paragraph, in its entirety, was:

“Good God.”

That tape, of course, was the one on which a vintage-2005 Donald Trump was recorded, in his always-recognizable voice, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Leading up, of course, to “Grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything.” Then, as captured on tape, Trump swallowed some Tic Tacs, stepped off a bus, and smilingly greeted and embraced the female TV host he had been ogling and talking about while aboard the bus.

“Good God,” because personal crudeness of this scale was far beyond revelations that had stopped pre-Trump political campaigns. Edmund Muskie early in 1972, Thomas Eagleton later in 1972, Gary Hart in 1988, Howard Dean in 2004—I won’t go into details, but by the standard of “Grab ’em by ...” these previous political storms would qualify as minor showers. (Actually, I encourage you to look into the possibility that the “embarrassments” that stopped Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 could have been the result of a political setup, as I wrote in 2018.)

But of course Trump’s campaign was not derailed, by this or anything else. Recall what happened next:

  • Trump initially dismissed the comments as “locker room talk.”
  • The next day he released a video in which he said, for one of the few times ever, that he “regretted” his remarks on tape. He read the following while looking straight at the camera: “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am [sic]. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
  • On the same afternoon that The Washington Post broke news of the recording, WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. (A witness for the Mueller report later said that Trump’s advisor Roger Stone coordinated this timing with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Stone denied being involved but last year was found guilty and sentenced to prison for lying about the case.) As was apparently intended, this immediately competed with the “grab ‘em” story for news coverage.
  • Some elected GOP officials criticized Trump—including, amazingly, his running mate Mike Pence, and then-Senator John McCain, who called on Trump to drop out.
  • But within a week, most Republicans were aboard again, and for Trump, a potentially campaign-ending event became just another bump in the road. His party, and his voters, would stick with him.

What’s the connection to current events? These past few days have been another “Good God” moment, even by the standards of the past few years.

At his multi-hour rally/”briefing” on Thursday evening, Trump speculated that heavy external (or internal) exposure to ultraviolet light, or perhaps drinking or injecting disinfectants, could be a solution to the virus.

Because Trump later falsely claimed that he had been quoted out of context, or had just been joking, it’s important to observe what he looked and sounded like when saying these (preposterous) things. Starting at time 26:00 of this C-SPAN video, you can see that he was in dead earnest—and acting as if he was offering a great insight, which had escaped the detail-minded professionals—when he said the following words:

Here’s a question that some of you [the press] are probably thinking of, if you’re totally into that world [of science], which I find to be very interesting.

Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light … Supposing you brought the light inside the body [sic], either through the skin or some other way.

And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.

While Trump was saying these words, one of his scientific advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx, was captured on film as her face went ashen at the idiocy of his comments. But she was then called to the microphone, and as she has done several times before, she pointedly avoided saying that Trump’s comments were not just ignorant but actively dangerous, especially if anyone was considering drinking disinfectant. As noted earlier, her medical colleague Anthony Fauci has continued to pull off the remarkable (and public-spirited) trick of maintaining his long-earned reputation for honesty, while retaining a position in Trump’s retinue. Fauci is unique in that status. Everyone else who has entered Trump’s service has fallen into the pit of reputational destruction.

The next day, Trump claimed that he was being “sarcastic” and only joking with the comments. This is his standard last line of defense when caught in a particularly egregious statement. For instance, he says his public call on “Russia” to release Hillary Clinton’s emails had just been a joke. That excuse was a lie, and anyone who saw the “disinfectant” video knows he is lying about this now.

Almost immediately, the manufacturers of Lysol and other disinfectants, along with numerous public health agencies, put out statements warning against drinking these products. Reporters from the Washington Post quoted Dara Kass, of Columbia University Medical Center, on the difference between this and Trump’s previous, now-discredited advice that people start taking a certain kind of pill:

“The difference between this and the chloroquine [pills] is that somebody could go right away to their pantry and start swallowing bleach. They could go to their medicine cabinet and swallow isopropyl alcohol,” Kass said. “A lot of people have that in their homes. There’s an immediate opportunity to react.”

Kass explained to the Post that people who ingest such chemicals often die, and those “who survive usually end up with feeding tubes because their mouth and esophagus were eroded by the cleaning agents.”

“It’s horrific,” she said.”


And of the 53 Republicans who make up Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority? How many have spoken up to criticize the president—on the specifics of this new “plan,” or on what the comments reveal about his approach to reality in general—or to warn the public against his advice?

As best I can determine, two days after Trump’s comments, that number is zero. This is the Vichy Republican bargain they made after the Access Hollywood tapes. It is the bargain that keeps an obviously unwell man in power now. It is the bargain for which they should be remembered.