What’s So Hard to Understand About What Trump Has Said?

A clarifying look at the president’s response to the coronavirus, in his own words

Donald Trump
Alexander Drago

At his daily pandemic briefing the other day, President Donald Trump announced, “We are continuing our relentless effort to destroy the [corona]virus.” A lot of people manage not to see much continuity in the president’s efforts, and wouldn’t use a word like relentless to describe his commitment to the struggle.

They haven’t been listening to him carefully.

We pored over dozens of transcripts of briefings, tweets, and media comments in an attempt to distill Trump’s core positions on the coronavirus threat, on China’s efforts to combat the virus, on the economic impact of the virus, and on the seriousness of efforts by the administration to fight it. We cannot fathom why people are confused as to his positions.

As Trump himself put it, “There was no difference yesterday from days before. I feel the tone is similar, but some people said it wasn’t.” We hope the following clarifies what are—and always have been—the clear, consistent positions of the president.

Trump has consistently said that his administration has the coronavirus “under control”: “We have it totally under control,” he said back in January. “A lot of people think that [it] goes away in April with the heat—as the heat comes in,” he said in February. “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” he reassured us in March. “It’s going to disappear; one day, it’s like a miracle.”

At a rally in South Carolina, he made clear why he was so confident the administration could handle the situation: “One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over … And this is their new hoax.

It’s all perfectly consistent with his other consistent message: that the virus is real, poses a great threat, and is unlike anything the country has faced before. “I’ve always known this is a real … pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” At a different press conference, he emphasized: “And the magnitude of this—it’s a tragedy … But the magnitude is something that—no matter who you were, no matter where you come from, nobody ever thought a thing like this could happen.

Note the president’s repeated use of the word always. That means he has been consistent.

Trump has also delivered a consistent message about China and its role in the crisis: that China is responsible for the virus and for keeping it secret, and that it has also done a fabulous and transparent job confronting it.

It came from China. It got out of control. Some people are upset,” he said on March 20 in a statement remarkable for containing three whole sentences without one obvious falsehood.

In a tweet, he made clear that the virus was a Chinese problem best handled by keeping Chinese people out of the United States. “I always treated the Chinese virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China—against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved.” He has reiterated this point: “We were very prepared … I’ll tell you how prepared I was: I called for a ban from people coming in from China long before anybody thought it was [appropriate]. I believe they called me a racist because I did that … They called me racist and other words because I did that, because I went so early.

At the same time, Trump has also stressed that the United States has a good relationship with China, and has actively praised Chinese efforts to combat the virus. “Our relationship with China is a very good relationship,” he has said, reserving particularly warm words for President Xi Jinping. “I wish they told us three months sooner that this was a problem. We didn’t know about it. They knew about it and they should have told us. We could have saved a lot of lives throughout the world.” But all that said, Trump has maintained that “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.

Which part of transparent secrecy is hard to understand?

Trump’s views on social distancing and shutting down the economy have been particularly criticized. But Trump has long been clear that social distancing is the right approach to this serious hoax, until the second it becomes outrageous and worse than the coronavirus disease itself. “I want to thank the American people for answering the call, following our guidelines, and making the sacrifices required to overcome this terrible threat … Social distancing—such an important phrase,” he rhapsodized back on March 25. “And we do it right now. The more lives we can save and the sooner we can eventually get people back to work, back to school, and back to normal.” The priority, he has stressed, is protecting life, even if that means waiting: “If it’s your life and it’s your safety and if we need more time, they’re not going to have a problem waiting it out.

Until, of course, it isn’t: “There’ll be a point at which we say, ‘We’re back in business. Let’s go,’” he said on March 22. The next day, he added: “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. This is not a country that was built for this.

When are we going to open up? “It’s going to be soon. It’s not going to be three or four months, as some people were saying and a lot of people thought originally.” Because when Trump says life comes first, well, that’s obviously contingent on whether the disease poses a bigger headache than the shutdown. “The shutdown causes bigger problems than the original. That’s why I talk about the cure being worse than the problem. We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” he has sagely insisted.

Trump has been particularly clear and consistent about who decides when we open up. “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be. And the governors know that,” he said. Which is to say that “the governors are going to make those decisions. That’s going to be up to the governors. And they’re very capable. They’ll be able to make the decisions.

Why the governors, if the president has the authority? Because “I like that from the standpoint of governing, and I like that from the standpoint of even our Constitution.” In other words, Trump has total authority for the states to handle things.

There’s something Trump doesn’t like about governors, though: having to give them a lot of stuff. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” he points out.

Finally, Trump has been clear about who is responsible for this whole situation—if it is a situation at all: Whatever part of this situation isn’t a hoax and isn’t under control and isn’t China’s fault and isn’t the fault of some governor asking him for personal protective equipment is Barack Obama’s fault—particularly any testing failures that may have taken place. “We took over an obsolete, broken testing system that wouldn’t have worked for even a small problem, let alone one of the biggest pandemics in history,” he has said. “We had to break a system—like breaking an egg—because the system we had was obsolete and didn’t work, and that was a system we inherited.” The same is true of personal protective equipment. “I inherited broken junk. Just as they did with ventilators where we had virtually none, and the hospitals were empty. Our cupboards were bare. We had very little in our stockpile. Now we’re loaded up.” Now, Trump says, “we’re the king of ventilators. We have ventilators.

Got it? Plenty of ventilators and lots of testing—but ask Obama about any shortfalls.

Here’s the bottom line: “It’s been an incredible period of time. We’ve done a fantastic job. We’re the talk of other nations. The leaders of other nations are calling us for help. They’re calling us for equipment. They’re calling us for testing capacities.

The president knows it’s tough out there: “A lot of people are dying, so it’s very unpleasant.” But, “for those worried and afraid, please know: As long as I am your president, you can feel confident that you have a leader who will always fight for you, and I will not stop until we win. This will be a great victory. This is going to be a victory. And it’s going to be a victory that, in my opinion, will happen much sooner than originally expected.

And President Trump, last of all, has never wavered about what he wants from you in return for this great victory: “You should say thank you very much for [my] good judgment,” he has said—and, we might add, for his continuing and relentless clarity.