White House Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany briefs
White House Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany briefs

White House press secretary cornered

One throwaway line from Donald Trump's re-election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma is still causing trouble for White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany three days later.

"When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people. You're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down please,'" the President told his supporters at the Bank of Oklahoma Centre.

That 10-second grab, from a speech that lasted an hour and 40 minutes, prompted an obvious and uncomfortable question for the Trump administration.

Did the President actually instruct his staff to "slow down" coronavirus testing?

Donald Trump speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Picture: Matt Barnard/Tulsa World via AP
Donald Trump speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Picture: Matt Barnard/Tulsa World via AP

The United States currently has around 2.4 million confirmed cases of the virus, and its death toll stands at 123,000. Mr Trump has repeatedly claimed the numbers only look so bad because the country does a lot of testing.

"If we didn't do any testing, we would have very few cases," he said late last month, in the first iteration of this argument.

"They (the media) don't want to write that. It's just common sense."

On one level, it was a ludicrous thing to say; akin to arguing there'd be very few cases of cancer if doctors would just stop looking for it.

To state the obvious, if the US tested fewer people for the virus, it would still have the same number of cases. The government would just have no idea where they were, and therefore no capacity to contain any new outbreaks.

But Mr Trump wasn't talking about the actual number of infections. He was talking about the number of cases reported by the government.

If his administration decided to do less testing, it could keep that tally artificially low. The statistics would be woefully inaccurate, but hey, at least they'd look better.

Mr Trump seems to want credit from the media for deciding not to go down that route.

Which brings us back to his comment at Saturday's rally. If Mr Trump actually instructed his staff to slow down testing for the virus, in some ill-advised effort to make the numbers look better, it would be a significant scandal.

During an interview with Mr Trump on Monday, Scripps reporter Joe St George asked him to clarify the remark.

"You said that you asked your staff to slow the testing down to improve the numbers. Does that mean somebody watching this right now on their local news is not going to get a test because you asked your staff-" St George asked.

The President did not answer the question directly.

"We do more testing than any other country in the world by far," Mr Trump said.

"We're so far advanced, in terms of the quality and the amount, and we're doing all these tests, and it shows cases.

"If we did slow it down, we wouldn't show nearly as many cases. You're showing people who are asymptomatic. You're showing people that have very little problem. You're showing young people that don't have a problem."

"But did you ask to slow it down?" St George pressed.

"If it did slow down, frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth. We've done too good a job," Mr Trump replied.

"With 25 million tests, you're going to find more people. So then they say we have more cases in the United States. The reason we have more cases is, we have more testing than any other country by far."

So, twice Mr Trump was asked whether he had actually given such an order, and both times he declined to give a direct answer.

Officials from the administration, Ms McEnany foremost among them, were left to clean up the situation. At yesterday's White House media briefing, the Press Secretary brushed off Mr Trump's original comment as a "jest".

"Has the President actually directed officials to slow down the rate of coronavirus testing?" ABC News reporter Ben Gittleson asked.

"No, he has not directed that. And in fact, I would note that first we continue to test about 500,000 per day, about half a million per day," Ms McEnany said.

"Any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact. And yeah, I would just note the extraordinary efforts of this administration."

 

"When he said Saturday that he told his people to 'slow it down', what did he mean by that?' Gittleson followed up.

"The President was trying to expose what the media oftentimes does, is they ignore the fact that the United States has more cases because we have more testing. We are leading the world in testing, and he was pointing that out - that it's a fact that the media readily ignores," she responded.

"So what he's saying, that he told officials, he told his people to slow down testing, is not true?" asked Gittleson.

"It was a comment that he made in jest. It's a comment that he made in passing. Specifically with regard to the media coverage, pointing out the fact that the media never acknowledges that we have more cases because when you test more people, you find more cases," Ms McEnany said.

"Is it appropriate to joke about coronavirus when 120,000 people have died?" Gittleson asked.

"He was not joking about coronavirus. I just said he was joking about the media, and their failure to understand the fact that when you test more you also find more cases," she said.

Ms McEnany was later backed up by Vice President Mike Pence, who said Mr Trump's remark was merely a "passing observation", and by the administration's chief trade adviser Peter Navarro, who described it as "tongue in cheek".

But even that was not the end of the story.

During a brief exchange with reporters on the White House lawn today, reporters asked Mr Trump whether he had indeed been joking.

"When you said you asked your people to slow down testing, were you just kidding, or do you have a plan to slow down testing?" asked CBS journalist Weijia Jiang.

"I don't kid," Mr Trump replied.

He went on to speak at some length about America's level of testing compared to the rest of the world.

"Let me just tell you, let me make it clear. We have got the greatest testing program anywhere in the world. We test better than anybody in the world. Our tests are the best in the world. And we have the most of them," Mr Trump said.

"By having more tests, we find more cases. We did 25 million tests. Think of that, 25 million. If you look at other countries, they did one million, two million, three million. Big countries. We did 25 million, way more by double, triple, quadruple any other country.

"Therefore, we test, we're going to have more cases. By having more cases, it sounds bad. But actually what it is, is we're finding people. Many of those people aren't sick, or very little. You know, (they) may be young people.

"But what's happening is, because of all the cases that we find, we have a very low mortality rate. Just about the best in the world."

According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States has a mortality rate of 5.2 per cent of those who test positive for coronavirus, which is the seventh-worst in the world.

And looking at its mortality rate as a proportion of total population, it has suffered 37 deaths per 100,000 people, which is fourth-worst in the world, behind only Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

"So that's the advantage to testing, along with other things. But just remember this, the reason we have more cases than other countries is because our testing is so much. Other countries do very little testing by comparison," Mr Trump continued.

"Here's what I say. Testing is a double-edged sword. In one way, it tells you, you have cases. In another way, you find out where the cases are, and you do a good job."

The US has indeed conducted far more tests than any other country. Its current tally is 29.4 million, far ahead of Russia in second place with 17.5 million. For context, Australia has done about 2.1 million tests.

However the US also has a much higher population than most other countries. When you measure by tests per capita, it ranks 26th in the world.

Anyway, the key point here is that Mr Trump was asked whether he'd been joking about slowing down testing, as Ms McEnany had claimed, and answered that he "doesn't kid".

At today's White House briefing, she was cornered by reporters again. They asked her to address the apparent contradiction.

"You said the President made that comment in jest, about having people slow down the testing. The Vice President just said that it was made in passing. Peter Navarro said it was tongue in cheek. But when the President himself was just asked by a reporter, like an hour ago, he did not say that he was just joking," CNN's Kaitlan Collins said.

"The President instead used the opportunity to extol the fact that we've done more than 25 million tests; that we're finding more people because we're doing more testing," Ms McEnany responded.

"I would note that what the Vice President said, and Peter Navarro, whether it's in jest, in passing or tongue in cheek, those are all synonymous."

The pair then got into an extended and somewhat farcical exchange about Mr Trump's use of the term "kung flu" to describe the virus. But that's a whole other story.

 

Originally published as White House press secretary cornered


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