President Trump has changed his posture on the coronavirus repeatedly. First he spent weeks dismissing the virus, then he briefly shifted into the persona of a “wartime president” who would defeat the virus, then reverted to his original stance after advisers persuaded him social-distancing measures would cripple the economy and his reelection. Now he is back, for the time being, to taking the virus seriously.
But since Trump never admits error, he has had to cover his reversals in a series of lies. In his press conference yesterday, Trump asserted that, when he had insisted the virus had been contained and would be almost harmless, he had merely been trying to give the country “hope.” Today, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked about those statements, Vice-President Mike Pence said, “I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.”
The term “Orwellian” has been cheapened over the years, but this lie absolutely fits the tradition of “we have always been at war with Eastasia.” Starting in January, Trump was insisting that he had the coronavirus fully contained. “We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully” (January 30). He repeatedly insisted the number of people infected would go down. “I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along” (February 19). “We had 12, at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better. Many of them are fully recovered” (February 23).
Trump likewise repeatedly portrayed the virus as mild. “Now, and this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this. Because a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild. They’ll get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor. They don’t even call a doctor. You never hear about those people.” (March 4) Trump has likened the coronavirus to the flu, questioning why the former required people to social distance while the latter did not:
He has been repeating that theme even as recently as one week ago: “We’ve never closed down the country for the flu. So you say to yourself, ‘What is this all about?’” (March 24)
There are many, many other examples. David Leonhardt collected most of them two weeks ago, but Trump just kept doing it. The thing is, there’s a pretty good chance Trump will start downplaying the virus again, when he grows impatient with waiting it out and decides to listen to Larry Kudlow again. And when the next turn happens, Pence will be there to shake his head vigorously and deny Trump ever took any position other than the current party line.