With COVID Hitting the West Wing, What Happens When the President Is a Liar?

Two viruses—the coronavirus and disinformation—collide at the White House.

Julio Cortez/AP

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One of the best weapons to deploy against a killer virus is accurate information—that is, the truth. If the public is fully and well informed about the dangers and the best countermeasures, the better the chances this threat can be arrested. Donald Trump, who with his wife, Melania, has tested positive for COVID-19, recklessly chose not to adopt this fundamental strategy in the face of a pandemic that has claimed over 207,000 American lives and that has yet to be tamed. You know the list: He downplayed the coronavirus (comparing it to the flu), he pronounced it was under control (it wasn’t), he said it would miraculously disappear with warmer weather (it didn’t), he promoted unproven and crackpot remedies (bleach, light, and hydroxychloroquine), he denigrated the most basic means to stop the spread (mask-wearing), and he refused to encourage safe practices (holding rallies with thousands of unmasked supporters). 

Trump has mounted a disinformation campaign since COVID-19 landed in the United States. He has undercut and contradicted the guidance provided by his own government’s public health experts. He has fueled the passions of the misguided anti-maskers and provided ammo to fools who believe the pandemic is a hoax. This week a Cornell University study that analyzed 38 million English-language articles about the coronavirus concluded that Trump was the largest driver of the “infodemic.” In other words, he is the chief spreader of the virus of disinformation. That was hardly a shocker. The Washington Post fact-checkers have chronicled over 20,000 false statements and lies from Trump since he stepped into the White House. 

So now when the coronavirus hits the West Wing, infects the president, a top aide, his wife, and perhaps others and triggers yet another crisis, a crucial element will be missing: trust. Can the public believe anything Trump and his minions say about this latest development? Of course not. 

Test results do speak for themselves—assuming they are reliably reported. But many other questions—how these infections came to be, what is the president’s condition, who else may be at risk—need answers. And there is no reason to accept White House statements or Trump tweets on these and related matters. A man who would lie about events that are publicly witnessed—the size of a crowd, a performance at a debate—would certainly lie about private affairs unseen by the voters. 

Even if Trump doesn’t chose to lie at this moment, one result of his well-established reckless disregard for the truth is that whatever he says will be greeted with suspicion and skepticism. As soon as the news of his positive COVID test was reported, folks on Twitter began speculating this was all a con: Trump did not have COVID but would soon declare a miraculous recovery and score political points. Others suggested (with no evidence at all) this was a ruse for Trump to escape future debates. That’s an extreme reaction to Trump’s long record of mendacity. But less dramatic skepticism is always warranted with Trump, and Americans are right to wonder if they will receive factual information during this crisis.

Not surprisingly, the White House did not begin with transparency. Though Trump’s key adviser Hope Hicks had been diagnosed with COVID—and had recently been in contact with Trump—White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not share this information during a press briefing on Thursday. And it was only after the news about Hicks was broken by Bloomberg‘s Jennifer Jacobs on Thursday night that the White House acknowledged it and then subsequently said Trump had tested positively. Would it have told the public about the president otherwise? And had Trump and his campaign informed attendees at a New Jersey fundraiser on Thursday headlined by Trump that he had recently interacted with a COVID-positive aide? No. (Trump traveled to his Bedminster country club for the event reportedly after learning of Hick’s condition.) On Friday morning, the public learned that Trump had displayed symptoms at that fundraiser—lethargy and cold-like symptoms. That information came not from the White House but from the New York Times. 

Trump has been the least transparent president in decades, particularly regarding his health. He has released incomplete medical records. (Remember this guy?) He has not explained a mysterious trip he made to the Walter Reed medical facility last November. He lies constantly about everything, especially himself, claiming he has the best brain and the best memory. It’s all cheap hucksterism. 


When the public deserves the best and most accurate information about the greatest health threat to the United States in a century and about the man who is in charge of protecting the nation from that threat, the person in command is one of the world’s leading disinformation agents. And given that Trump has demonstrated he will do practically anything to win reelection—belittle a pandemic, appeal to racism, encourage confrontation and possible violence, make false charges of voting fraud, use Russian disinformation, debase the discourse, place his own supporters at risk, and crassly exploit the White House and US government agencies—there is no reason to expect he will be honest with the voters about any aspect of the White House coronavirus crisis. But, worse for Trump, his deceitful ways, while they might still be of use politically, will not help him medically. Trump can bullshit a nation. He cannot bullshit a virus. There’s an old cliché—credited to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Trump has a dark soul and his White House is a dark place. In such conditions, a virus cannot be stopped. 


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