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Arc of Trump’s coronavirus comments defies reality on ground

The Washington Post: In the course of a few weeks, President Donald Trump veered from confidently assuring Americans his administration had the coronavirus outbreak “very well under control” to declaring a national emergency and tweeting ALL CAPS caution about the pandemic that has upended every facet of American life.

Trump meandered from denial to grudging acceptance, and in his words, he seeded conflicting, inaccurate and eyebrow-raising commentary to a country desperate for unvarnished, even shock-to-the-system guidance.

Throughout the global coronavirus crisis, Trump’s statements have been colored by baseless optimism. Sometimes, his commentary has been flatly wrong. Frequently, it’s been amplified by aides and allies with the help of conservative media.

As he confronts the most serious national crisis of his presidency, the lack of precision has cut into Trump’s credibility at a moment when he needs it more than ever, analysts say.

“It started out with really what can only be described as full-blown denial,” said Brian Ott, a communications studies professor at Texas Tech University who has done extensive research on the president’s social media rhetoric. “Then as the crisis spread and as it became a pandemic ... it just wasn’t viable rhetoric anymore because it wasn’t at all where the American public was at.”

Early on, the president downplayed the coronavirus as something similar to the seasonal flu — nothing that Americans should be overly concerned about, and something that would quickly pass.

His optimistic public comments often didn’t match the reality on the ground or even how U.S. public health agencies were approaching the looming crisis behind the scenes.

In one of his first substantive public remarks on the virus, during a visit in late January to an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan, Trump acknowledged that the U.S. had seen a smattering of infections but predicted a “very good ending for it.”

At that the moment, there were only a handful of known cases in the United States, but the virus had already infected thousands in China and World Health Organization had declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern.”

“We think we have it very well under control,” Trump told the assembled workers. “We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it’s going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you.”

The next day the Trump administration said it would suspend entry into the United States by any foreign nationals who had traveled to China in the past 14 days, excluding the immediate family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. By then, more than 200 had died and nearly 9,800 had been infected worldwide.

Weeks later — on Feb. 25 — his top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, sought to ease volatile markets by assuring investors that the administration had the virus “contained” and “it was pretty close to airtight.” Kudlow added that coronavirus may be a “human tragedy” but predicted it wouldn’t be an “economic tragedy.” At one point, when the stock market was plunging, he even mention the prospect of “buying the dip.”

The optimism was jarring. As Kudlow was attempting to reassure markets, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on the same day of an incoming “disruption to everyday life.” The spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., agency officials warned, was “not so much of a question of if” but rather “a question of when.”

Even as Democratic criticism of his approach mounted, the president — backed by aides and allies — turned to lashing out that his enemies were trying to use the catastrophe to score political points. By late February, after confirmed infections in the U.S. had accelerated, Trump shifted to anger aimed at political opponents and the media and called their response a “new hoax.”

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right?” Trump lamented during a campaign rally in South Carolina days after the CDC warning. “Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it.”

Trump, at several moments throughout the crisis, has also seemed out of tune with aides and public health experts offering him guidance >>>