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Trump now says he knew the virus ‘could be horrible’ when he was saying things like ‘it’s going to disappear’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/1/2020 Amber Phillips

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On Tuesday, a somber President Trump acknowledged that under the best-case scenario, 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die of coronavirus. “It’s not the flu,” he said, in stark contrast to when he compared it with the flu repeatedly in March.

So now that the president seems to have come around to the gravity of the health crisis, what does he think about his weeks of downplaying a virus he now says is serious? And what about not advising social distancing weeks earlier, even though there is widespread agreement among public health experts that Americans should have been isolating sooner than mid-March?

CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump those questions repeatedly Tuesday. And on this front, Trump had not changed: He was unwilling to admit error.

Let’s start with Trump downplaying the virus. Acosta asked him: “Is there any fairness to the criticism that you may have lulled Americans into a false sense of security? When you were saying things like it’s going to go away and that sort of thing?"

Trump’s answer basically came down to: He did not want to deliver the bad news about how serious the virus could be. What’s more, he said he knew ahead of time it could be this bad (or even worse, killing millions with no government intervention whatsoever), but he did not want to tell Americans that at the time.

“I want to give people a feeling of hope. I could be very negative. I could say ‘wait a minute, those numbers are terrible. This is going to be horrible,’ ” he said. “Well, this is really easy to be negative about but I want to give people hope too. You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country.”

Acosta pressed him: “So you knew it was going to be this severe when you were saying this was under control?”

Basically, yes, Trump responded: “I thought it could be. I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good. Don’t forget, at that time, people didn’t know that much about it, even the experts. We were talking about it. We didn’t know where it was going. We saw China but that was it. Maybe it would have stopped at China.”

The virus stopping at China’s borders? That’s not what increasingly urgent U.S. intelligence reports about the virus were saying at the time.

As The Post’s Harry Stevens and Shelly Tan have reported, Trump was basically urging people as recently as three weeks ago to go about their daily lives, just washing their hands more frequently. “Just stay calm. It will go away,” he said March 10, as the number of confirmed cases in the United States was nearing 1,000 and multiplying rapidly.

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His apparently cavalier attitude to the virus certainly played a role in Americans’ decisions to take that trip to visit their grandparents, or go skiing in now-hard-hit Idaho, or for spring breakers to go to Florida and party on the beaches.

Even as it is now clear that the virus was spreading in a deadly way in early March, if not earlier, Trump was still not willing to take responsibility Tuesday to contributing to that culture. Perhaps even worse, he acknowledged he knew it could be this bad and did not warn Americans about it.

The second tough question Acosta asked was whether more lives could be have been saved if Trump and his administration had taken the virus more seriously and implemented social distancing guidelines as early as February. “If we had started these practices sooner, could these models be different right now?” he asked.

There, too, Trump was not willing to acknowledge his own errors. In the same briefing, Trump’s coronavirus task force members had pointed to charts showing Washington state aggressively shutting down movement early and thus flattening its curve of infections.

Trump responded by holding up the only early action he has taken, closing borders to China on Jan. 31 — which has nothing to do with social distancing.

“That was probably the biggest decision we made so far,” he said.

It was not until a month and a half later, on March 16, that he declared a national emergency and recommended Americans avoid large groups and stay in their homes. That was weeks after a notable number of private U.S. companies had sent their employees home.

On Tuesday, he also blamed New York for not implementing social distancing sooner. “New York started late, but the other ones didn’t start so late,” he said, referring to Washington state and California.

It is true some prominent New York officials, such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, downplayed the virus as well. But if Trump wants to criticize New York for letting people move about and spread the virus, he is implicitly criticizing his own administration’s actions for doing the same nationwide.

The public health experts on the coronavirus task force were more willing to acknowledge the administration could have acted sooner to save lives. “Probably, yes,” said infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.

But in trying to make that decision, they were hamstrung by another problem of the administration’s making: faulty tests. They did not know how many people were infected in February, so they could not advise on whether to social distance sooner.

When asked about the tests, Trump, too, dodged responsibility. He claimed he “inherited obsolete tests” from the Obama administration, which is false.

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