Yesterday, President Trump stood at the lectern in the White House press room and, while the cameras rolled, asked his science advisers to test whether they could treat coronavirus patients by injecting ultraviolet light or disinfectant into their bodies. Today he explained to reporters that he had just been joking. “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you,” he said, “just to see what would happen.”
Trump was not addressing reporters when he said this. He was turning to the side and addressing his mortified science adviser, Dr. Deborah Birx. And he was not smiling:
Trump often resorts to the defense that he was “just joking” when one of his comments becomes impossible to defend. He used it to describe his 2016 request that Russia steal Hillary Clinton’s emails (a request Russia acted on that night, according to the Mueller report), his promise to pardon any border agents who commit crimes while carrying out his agenda, and many others.
In this case, Trump does not seem to be saying it was a haha joke, but some kind of serious prank, in which he would float a completely preposterous idea and see if he could get the White House media to report it as news. The prank required Trump to maintain a completely deadpan demeanor, and to get Birx’s cooperation, and to let the untruth go uncorrected for about 18 hours before finally revealing the gag. Trump was using his briefing on a deadly pandemic that has killed 50,000 Americans already for an Andy Kaufman–esque ruse, with the concomitant risk that his supporters will be killed in the process.
This is Trump’s defense! Because the actual truth is much worse: He just comes up with insane ideas for cures and demands his medical advisers look into them, because he has no idea how science works and thinks brainstorming kooky notions in public makes him look smart.