When President Donald Trump told Americans that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu and would soon go away, he knew those statements were false. We now have proof, thanks to audio recordings made by Bob Woodward for his new book, Rage. But there’s a more pressing lie to address, because Trump is using it to jeopardize more lives.
In a conversation with Woodward on March 19, Trump acknowledged that he had deliberately played down the threat of the virus. But that damning admission has overshadowed another remark: “It’s turning out it’s not just old people,” Trump told Woodward. “Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old—older. Young people, too. Plenty of young people.”
Trump was talking about a March 18 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report found that in an early sample of U.S. coronavirus patients, 38 percent of those who required hospitalization were between the ages of 20 and 54. Among known carriers in the 20-to-44 age bracket, about 15 to 20 percent had been hospitalized. In the sample as a whole, 44 patients had died, and nine of them were aged 20 to 64. These numbers echoed data from the Netherlands, where half the people admitted to intensive care were below the age of 50, and France, where half were younger than 60. A separate study in China, published just before the Trump-Woodward conversation, found that among patients younger than 18, nearly 40 percent had become at least moderately ill.
Trump didn’t tell Woodward exactly which of these studies he had been briefed on. But by bringing up the topic and calling the numbers “startling,” he signaled his alarm. In public, however, he conveyed none of that. Instead, he told Americans that youth was a shield against the virus. In April, he urged governors to reopen schools and businesses because “young people seem to do very well” with it. In May, he prodded colleges to resume in-person instruction, asserting that the virus had “very little impact on young people.”
It’s true that younger people, when compared with older people, are less likely to get seriously ill with this disease. But Trump went well beyond that truth. In June and July, as states reopened under his pressure, triggering a second wave of infections, he argued that the spread didn’t matter because the people who were being infected weren’t old. In fact, he said that these infections shouldn’t be counted—and the carriers shouldn’t even have been tested—because they’d be fine. The tests, he groused, were “showing young people that don’t have a problem.” He peddled the same argument in Fox News interviews on July 9 and July 17. “Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day,” he scoffed. “Many of those cases shouldn’t even be cases.”
In the last week of July, Trump began to claim that the surge of infections was actually a success because the people being infected were “significantly younger” than people who had caught the virus earlier in the pandemic. He pitched this as part of a plan to boost the economy. “Economic health is vital to public health,” he declared on Aug. 7. “That’s why our strategy to kill the China virus has focused on protecting those at greatest risk while allowing younger and healthy Americans to safely return to work.”
The president didn’t just propose that small children go back to school or that workplaces reopen. He called for entertainment, too. On July 30, when a reporter asked him about coronavirus outbreaks among college football players and professional baseball teams, Trump dismissed the problem, implying that the athletes were invincible. “Young people are almost immune to this disease,” he insisted. He failed to acknowledge that the outbreaks themselves proved him wrong. “College football—get out there and play football. People want to see it,” he demanded at the White House on Aug. 11. He repeated that demand in a Fox News interview on Aug. 17 and at a campaign rally on Aug. 28. “I want football back,” he said. “These are young, strong guys. They’re not going to be affected by the virus.”
To prove his point, Trump quoted statistics that were couched to make the virus look innocuous. “Only 2.7 percent of deaths have occurred among those 44 years … and younger,” he said at a briefing on Aug. 19. He neglected to mention that the U.S. death toll, at that point, exceeded 170,000, which meant that 2.7 percent of the total was 4,600 deaths. In the face of that number, and despite outbreaks on university campuses, Trump was telling college students to go back to playing football.
Through all of this, as he escalated his lies and offered ever-cheaper reasons to risk the health of young people, he pretended that months of data had revealed their invincibility. “We’ve learned so much about this disease,” he said on July 21. “We know who the vulnerable are.” On Aug. 4, he claimed that science had clarified whom the virus affected—old people—and “who gets away with it, like young people.” But Woodward’s tapes show that Trump, in private, said just the opposite. He initially thought young people were immune, and he was startled to learn that they weren’t. “Plenty” of them got seriously ill, he told Woodward. Only later did Trump reformulate this damage as a percentage of deaths, to make the risk look small.
If you’re young and healthy, it’s unlikely that this virus will kill you. But unlikely isn’t nothing. If you want to play football or party with friends, that’s up to you. But don’t believe the president when he says that the virus can’t affect you, or that he’s telling you that because he learned it from scientific research. To him, you’re just a pawn.
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