The Memo: Trump runs into trouble with expectations game

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE is mired in controversy over projections about the total number of deaths from COVID-19. 

His detractors accuse him of pulling figures out of thin air, giving the nation false hope and seeking to boost his reelection odds.

Trump’s defenders, however, assert he is simply fulfilling the traditional role of a president in trying to bolster morale during a crisis.

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Two developments within the past 48 hours have put the issue front and center.

On Monday, The New York Times was first to report that private projections within the Trump administration were much worse than what the president was acknowledging publicly.

The previous day, during a virtual town hall broadcast by Fox News, Trump suggested the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 could reach 100,000.

“Look, we're going to lose anywhere from 75-, 80- to 100,000 people. That’s a horrible thing. We shouldn’t lose one person over this,” he said.

During that appearance, Trump also acknowledged: “I used to say 65,000 ... and now I’m saying 80 or 90, and it goes up and it goes up rapidly.”

The difficulties of navigating both the political and public health crosscurrents in a crisis of this magnitude are immense. Independent experts note that any president would struggle to find anything close to an optimum balance.

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“If you overestimate it, you can get people to think this is going to go on forever, we are never going to get back to any kind of semi-normal public health situation or any kind of semi-normal economy,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “But if you underplay it, then people will say, ‘You were just trying to give us false hope to get reelected.’”

Those challenges are particularly pronounced in Trump’s case. His desire to have his estimates or projections taken seriously faces stiff headwinds.

First, there is the president’s penchant for misstatements generally. He had made 18,000 false or misleading claims between his inauguration and mid-April, according to a tally maintained by The Washington Post.

Second, there is his history of downplaying the threat from the coronavirus and then revising history to make it appear as if he had not done so.

For example, on Feb. 26, Trump said the 15 cases then known in the United States “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” By March 17, he would claim at a news conference, “This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” 

Third, perhaps Trump’s single biggest gaffe during the crisis, was his suggestion at a White House news conference that injecting or ingesting disinfectant could help kill the coronavirus inside the human body. Trump later claimed he was being sarcastic, though there was nothing suggesting sarcasm when the remarks were first made. 

The president continues to claim that the overall impact of the virus would have been far worse had he not taken action, such as instituting a travel ban on China. 

“This should have been stopped in China,” he said during Sunday’s Fox News event, held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. “It should have been stopped. But if we didn't do it, the minimum we would have lost is a million-two, a million-four, a million-five.That’s the minimum. We would have lost probably higher than — it's possible higher than 2.2 [million].” 

Trump’s supporters will likely give him credit for the action he has taken, but there is little evidence that moderates or undecided voters are being won over.

His approval ratings have slipped downward again in recent weeks after ticking up in the early days of the crisis. An Economist-YouGov poll conducted April 26-28 found his handling of the crisis receiving the approval of 45 percent of adults and the disapproval of 49 percent. Independent voters gave Trump the thumbs-down by a wider margin, with only 40 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving.

The New York Times’s revelations on Monday look set to deepen the problem for the president. The Times reported that an “internal document” showed the daily death toll rising to about 3,000 people per day in the United States by June 1.

In response, White House spokesman Judd Deere said, “This is not a White House document nor has it been presented to the Coronavirus Task Force or gone through interagency vetting. This data is not reflective of any of the modeling done by the task force or data that the task force has analyzed.” 

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Deborah Birx, a key member of the White House task force, said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend that “our projections have always been between 100,000 and 240,000 American lives lost, and that’s with full mitigation” as well as social distancing remaining in place.

Public health experts emphasize that the process of modeling accurately is almost impossible in a fast moving situation with so many variables and unknowns. 

Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow and health expert at the Brookings Institution, noted that any such projections were “a moving target.” Models, she noted, had to estimate such inherently unknowable things as how many people would abide by social distancing guidelines and for how long. 

Many of the models project only a few weeks out, rather than engaging in outright guesswork as to what the situation may be by the end of the year.

For Trump, though, the desire to seek to manage expectations by predicting the future seems irresistible — and politically dangerous. 

“I don’t have any problem with the president saying, ‘Look, we were wrong’ or ‘Our estimates have changed,’” said Patel. “I think the problem is the certainty with which the president states these facts — and then pairs that with this message that the states can do what they want.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.