“Hydroxychloroquine. Try it. If you like,” urged a chipper Donald Trump from the White House podium in early April, in one of his surreal press briefings. The president’s apparent enthusiasm for a then-unproven treatment for coronavirus was so gushing that when asked by reporters, he said he might personally try it out: “I think people should — if it were me — in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it. Okay? I may take it. And I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it.”
As the weeks went by, this promise seemed to fall by the wayside. And for good reason; as more evidence has come in, using hydroxychloroquine has gone from silly to insanely dangerous. Studies have found the drug generally ineffective and potentially dangerous, and may lead to an elevated risk of serious heart problems.
Today, Trump claimed that he is actually doing it. “I take it. I would’ve told you that three or four days ago, but we never had a chance because you never asked me the question,” Trump told reporters, noting that he asked his doctor and said, “I’d like it. I’d like to take it,” and the physician dutifully replied, “Well, if you’d like it.”
Trump’s explanation for his curious decision to take an ineffective treatment that has dangerous side effects once again revealed his complete failure to understand the scientific method. “All I can tell you is so far, I’ve been okay,” he explained. Asked what evidence he has for the drug’s efficacy, he said, “Are you ready? Here’s my evidence — I get a lot of positive calls about it.”
It cannot be stressed strongly enough that this is not how science works. Several hundred years ago, before the invention of modern scientific methods of observing and testing treatments, it was common to adopt a treatment on the ground of “some guys told me it’s good,” and to use the observation “so far, I haven’t died” as evidence in favor of its effectiveness. But the rise of observational studies allows far more accurate assessments.
Trump did concede that one study, by the Veterans Administration, found hydroxychloroquine to be ineffective. But he dismissed its authors as biased (they “aren’t big Trump fans”), before immediately segueing to a lengthy version of his oft-repeated lie that he was personally responsible for the Veterans Choice health-care program, which was, in fact, enacted in 2014. Even if true, his false boast about having engineered a reform to the VA that predated his presidency by three years would not explain why researchers there would falsify data about a useful treatment merely to harm Trump.
Trump volunteered his experiment with hydroxychloroquine in the course of attacking the fired government vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright. Bright told reporters he lost his job in part because he resisted efforts by Trump loyalists to push hydroxychloroquine faster than medical evidence would permit. To Trump, Bright’s skepticism merely indicated his ideological unreliability. “So the so-called HHS Whistleblower was against HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE,” he tweeted accusingly, before using the fact that Bright gave in to the demands to discredit his accuser.
“He also happens to be, if you look — see whether or not he was a big contributor to the Democrats,” Trump said. “There’s a lot of bad things coming out about him.” The notion that Bright might be working to advance public health without regard to ideology seems not to have occurred to Trump. The whole notion seems fanciful. Once Trump has endorsed a course of medication, all scientific authorities must be judged on whether or not their findings adhere to his conclusions.
The next day, Trump followed up by further asserting that the VA study finding hydroxychloroquine effective was designed to undermine him politically. “It was a Trump enemy statement,” asserted the president, characteristically asserting that scientific research that undercuts his hunches must have been rigged.
Trump’s bizarre commitment to this one treatment, to the point of urging his fans to take it even before they contract the coronavirus, does tell us something about how his mind works. He is not just looking for a miracle drug to end the pandemic and allow a quick economic recovery. He is a consumer of his own propaganda.
This post has been updated.