WASHINGTON — On Feb. 23, with the coronavirus silently spreading in American cities, President Trump made a breezy pronouncement about the new disease: “We have it very much under control in this country.”
By April 16, with more than 30,000 people dead, Trump said the country had “made great progress” fighting the pandemic. Two weeks later, as the death toll passed 60,000, his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, described the administration’s response as a “great success story.”
And last week, at a triumphant press conference in the Rose Garden, Trump stood in front of signs touting the country’s testing capacity and claimed victory once more. “We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” he said.
Ever since the pandemic emerged as a global threat, Trump has shown a willingness to downplay its risks and overstate his administration’s progress in fighting it. A president often preoccupied with winning, he has proclaimed success after success on the virus even as the country stumbled on testing as the disease first spread, as the death toll passes 92,000, and as public health officials warn cases could spike again as states relax restrictions.
“We’re opening up our country, we’re doing really well,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, before describing the nation’s status as the world leader in confirmed cases a “badge of honor” because, he said, it reflected a growing number of tests.
Trump’s propensity for declarations of success and sunny predictions comes with political risk in an election year, as Democrats are eager to seize on his words and depict him as cavalier and disconnected from the reality of the crisis.
“He’s out there declaring victory,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia. He chaired the Democratic National Committee when the party ramped up its attacks on George W. Bush for giving a 2003 speech in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner weeks into what turned into a yearslong war in Iraq.
“We’re going to use his own words,” McAuliffe said of Trump. “That will sink him.”
On Tuesday, Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, released a digital ad directly accusing Trump of declaring “mission accomplished” in the midst of an ongoing crisis, and other outside groups backing former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, have also picked up the theme.
“Nothing could be more tone deaf than claiming victory with people’s lives being torn apart,” said Kyle Morse, a spokesman for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge.
There have been some encouraging figures about the virus in recent days. The number of new cases reported daily in the country has been on a downward trajectory in May, according to The New York Times database tracking cases, although there are usually more than 20,000 new cases daily. Trump’s allies say he is merely pointing to progress where it exists. They have cited those developments to tout his administration’s efforts and to push for an end to the restrictions that helped bring new infections down while wreaking havoc on the economy.
“This is not ‘mission accomplished,’ this is saying, “things seem to be heading in the right direction,' ” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and a member of Trump’s task force on the economy, acknowledging that ongoing deaths are not incompatible with what the administration views as progress. “We’re going to see deaths, probably throughout the summer, but at a much slower pace.”
Public health experts warn that any message from leaders that gives the public a false sense of security could have a dangerous impact on public health.
“One can take a small victory lap to say we have brought the cases down from the peak,” said Nahid Bhadelia, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center. “If you tell people that everything is over and there is no more threat, people can let their guard down.”
They also warn that the virus is likely to spread anew as social distancing restrictions ease, and that it could return with a vengeance in the fall if the nation does not put enough safeguards in place.
“If the implication is that we’re at the end, then absolutely that is shortsighted,” said Yonatan Grad, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious disease at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “To the extent that there remain substantial percentages of the population that are susceptible, we should expect to see a resurgence in infections.”
If that happens, Trump’s confident pronouncements about the trajectory of the virus could erode his credibility with voters who are assessing how his administration handles the crisis, said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
“That’s his reelection,” said Heye, of the political risk. “The perception of how it’s ultimately handled by the government, in large part, deals with the president’s rhetoric.”
A pillar of Trump’s 2016 campaign was his promise to lead the country to success in trade deals and other matters on the world stage, boasting that, “we’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.” In a January speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he declared that “America is winning again like never before.”
In the case of the coronavirus, Trump has tempered his descriptions of progress by saying he does not think it will ever be possible to declare “total victory.” Ken Farnaso, a spokesman for his presidential campaign, said Biden’s allies were “attempting to undermine the president’s bold actions to combat and defeat the coronavirus.”
Trump downplayed the threat of the virus from the start, frequently saying it was unlikely to spread in the United States and pointing repeatedly to his decision in January to impose travel restrictions on non-US citizens who had been to China, where the virus originated.
“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump said on Feb. 2.
On March 24, as the nation’s death toll approached 3,000, he said he could already see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” On April 27, he said “all parts of the country are either in good shape, getting better,” even though the rate of new cases continued to rise in numerous states, including Texas, North Carolina, and Minnesota.
“We’re getting our way back much faster than people think,” he said on April 29.
Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Biden, said that Trump was “intentionally misleading the public,” and that Democrats should counter not with a political message, but by presenting their own plan to reopen the country “safely and responsibly.”
“If they think that Democrats, if they think that Joe Biden would do a better job in an emergency like this, people are going to vote for him,” she said.
But Trump’s base has stuck with him through numerous scandals and governing mistakes that might have hurt other presidents. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said it is too early to know whether Trump will run into a backlash similar to the one generated by Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. Bush was criticized for declaring victory prematurely, but he ultimately survived with a narrow reelection victory in 2004.
“All of that depends upon where we are come October, and whether or not that judgment looks premature or prescient, and no one really knows the answer to that today,” Ayres said.