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President Trump Has Consistently Downplayed Threat Of Coronavirus


Coronavirus fears shook the financial markets again today. The World Health Organization now says the threat of a pandemic is very real because the virus has gained a foothold in so many countries. President Trump has been tweeting a different message. The president claims the concerns are overblown. He's even suggested the media and Democrats are trying to inflame the situation. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Trump has consistently keyed in on the number of cases in the U.S., even as the lack of widely available testing meant there was no way of really knowing how many cases there were. He has talked about the positives and downplayed the worst-case scenario. And consistently, the ground has shifted beneath him. On February 26, President Trump took the rare step of going to the White House briefing room to update the public on his administration's response. The first case of coronavirus not linked to travel - what's known as community transmission - had just been diagnosed. But Trump suggested, without any scientific basis, there was a chance it could all go away.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're at the low level. As they get better, we take them off the list so that we're going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time.

KEITH: He was wrong - very wrong. Trump frequently inflates numbers to make himself look better, from economic indicators to crowd size. And with coronavirus, he has garbled the science on how soon a vaccine might be available and repeatedly pushed the idea that those critical of the federal response are just trying to hurt him politically. This comes at a time when it is very important to be clear with the public, says Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health.

SAAD OMER: In these kinds of public health emergencies, we need to be able to trust our leaders, be it public health, scientific or political leaders.

KEITH: It matters, he says, because there could come a time when widespread quarantines are required to slow the spread of the virus. And then you need the public to believe the people telling them what they need to do. So Omer suggests politicians stick to basic messages like encouraging hand-washing and let the scientists handle the science.

OMER: People understand if the president or sort of any of the political leaders are not experts in everything. And they say, look; this is my guy or my gal who is in charge of the scientific aspect. And they will tell you what is happening and what we need to do and what are preparations.

KEITH: He says elected leaders shouldn't play armchair epidemiologist. But that just isn't Trump's style. On Friday, he claimed to have a natural ability to understand the science. Trump was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wearing a red campaign hat, with lab equipment whirring around him as he held court with reporters for some 45 minutes.


TRUMP: As of the time I left the plane with you, we had 240 cases, or that's at least what was on a very fine network known as Fox News.

KEITH: Trump batted down questions about potential measures to shore up the economy and falsely suggested that everyone that wanted to be tested for coronavirus could get tested. Asked about the Grand Princess cruise ship with sick passengers on board, Trump said he would rather the passengers stay at sea.


TRUMP: I would rather - because I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault.

KEITH: The numbers doubled over the weekend, and it had nothing to do with the ship, which docked in Oakland today. This morning on CNN, Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease specialist helping to lead the national response, had a message for people who are older or have underlying conditions like heart disease and diabetes.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Stay out of crowds. Don't do travel. Above all, don't go near a cruise ship. Don't go on a cruise ship.

KEITH: It was a stark warning that came even as President Trump tweeted, quote, "Nothing is shut down. Life and the economy go on."

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.