The coronavirus and Trump’s diseased credibility

On Tuesday, Nancy Messonnier—director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—called a media briefing. She warned Americans that the spread of the coronavirus known as covid-19 is a matter not of if, but of when. According to Politico, the White House was “livid” with Messonnier and scrambled to establish a reassuring counter narrative. Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, went on CNBC to say the United States had contained the virus; on Twitter, President Trump insisted that all is well, and accused CNN and “MSDNC” (MSNBC) of conspiring to “make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible.” On Wednesday, for the second time in his presidency, Trump held a press conference in the White House briefing room. (The other occasion? A stunt that distracted attention from the Democrats officially taking control of the House.) His aides told the Associated Press that Trump was trying to show that he grasps the “gravity” of the coronavirus. But some of his remarks, including a comparison between the coronavirus and routine winter flu, were misleading and contradictory. Yesterday, at an event to mark Black History Month, Trump again attacked media coverage of the virus, lowballed the number of cases on US soil, and called the rate of infections “almost a miracle.”

At his press conference on Wednesday, Trump designated Vice President Mike Pence as his coronavirus point person. Coverage was quick to question Pence’s public-health credentials; when he was governor of Indiana, he initially refused to distribute needles that could have curbed a severe HIV outbreak. “Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me,” Trump said. Then, yesterday, Pence announced that Deborah L. Birx, a scientist and physician who heads government efforts to fight HIV/AIDS, would coordinate the coronavirus response. She would join Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, who was charged with leading a coronavirus task force. Reporters became confused about who, exactly, is overseeing what. If Pence’s oversight is in doubt, it does seem that he’ll be controlling the flow of coronavirus information: yesterday, the New York Times reported that federal health officials and experts now have to clear all public statements and appearances with his office.

Related: How to name a coronavirus

If history is any guide, the same discipline will not be expected of Trump’s tweets. As many journalists have noted this week, neither the coronavirus nor Trump’s aversion to the truth is healthy, and the combination of the two could have disastrous consequences. “Since the dawn of the Trump presidency, countless experts have warned that the president’s lack of credibility would imperil the country in the event of an emergency,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote on Wednesday. “With the worsening coronavirus outbreak, those fears may be coming true.”

It’s important to note that Trump’s lack of credibility has already imperiled the country during several ongoing and immediate emergencies. The president and his administration have, for instance, consistently worked to undermine government climate scientists. Last year, after Trump erroneously tweeted that an incoming hurricane might hit Alabama, he doctored a government weather map with a Sharpie to “prove” his point; officials who contradicted him risked losing their jobs. Early this year, Trump sparked a dangerous confrontation with Iran based on intelligence about an “imminent attack” that neither lawmakers nor the public were ever shown. In such cases, Trump’s poor record with the truth had—and continues to have—bad real-world consequences. That none has yet blossomed into a full-blown, national-level catastrophe is in spite of Trump’s poisoning of the information well.

This week, the president’s allies in Congress and the news media have accused the press of politicizing the coronavirus story by making it about Trump. It’s true that at times of medical crisis, especially ones marked by a high level of uncertainty, there can be a fine line between appropriate scrutiny and political criticism. But this administration has proved time and again—including this week—that it does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Questioning the information that it disseminates about the coronavirus isn’t nearly as dangerous as not doing so.

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Speaking on CNN yesterday, Maggie Haberman, of the Times, summed up the problem. “Every administration has some official who has said something that isn’t true,” she said, “but the sheer volume of things that are not true that have been said by the president and by some of his aides does not inspire credibility.” Many of the crises Trump has faced have been, in no small part, of his own making. “This one is not, and how you handle that is a moment where you want people to believe that they can trust what you’re saying,” Haberman said. “They have brought this on themselves that people question it.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.