Public-health officials believe that widespread testing is a key element of any response to the coronavirus. President Trump does not believe this. And now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has officially adopted Trump’s view. It has modified its official guidelines, and no longer recommends that those who have been exposed to the virus but currently lack symptoms get a test.
The first reports of this change were filled with comments from incredulous experts, whose assessments included “bizarre,” “very strange,” “this is going to make things worse,” and so on. Now we have an explanation for this bizarre policy: High-level officials ordered it. CNN reports the change “came this week as a result of pressure from the upper ranks of the Trump administration.” The New York Times adds, “One official said the directive came from the top down. Another said the guidelines were not written by the C.D.C. but were forced down.”
Evidence that Trump has sought to slow down testing has been available for a long time. In March, Trump told reporters he kept infected passengers offshore on a cruise ship in order to hold down the official numbers of infections: “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.”
He has said for months that the availability of testing increases recorded case levels and makes him look bad. (“When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”) And he has insisted that many people who get tests don’t need them, because they’re young and will recover. “Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day,” he said on July 19. “They have the sniffles and we put it down as a test.”
In July, Trump announced at a rally, “You know testing is a double-edged sword … Here’s the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down please.’”
His defenders insisted he was kidding. A reporter offered Trump the chance to make this defense. He did not. When asked, “But did you ask to slow [testing] down?” Trump shrugged and replied, “If it did slow down, frankly, I think we’re way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth. We’ve done too good a job, because every time we go up, with 25 million tests, you’re gonna find more people, so then they say, ‘Oh, we have more cases in the United States.’” Of course this is also perfectly consistent with Trump’s oft-stated belief that the pandemic is a perception problem, and that pretending it doesn’t exist will help him politically.
Reporters have repeatedly confirmed that Trump has applied this pressure behind the scenes. Dan Diamond reported in March that the White House “did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that’s partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”
And in July, Katherine Bean reported that during internal meetings, “Trump also feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity.”
There has been a weird reluctance to take Trump’s comments seriously or literally. But the accumulation of evidence is quite clear. Trump’s public comments, reports of his private position, and the reports by officials of the latest change all point to the same conclusion: Trump is overruling public-health officials and sabotaging coronavirus testing because he believes keeping the case counts misleadingly low will make him look better.