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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Covid testing is about saving lives. Trump thinks it’s just about numbers.

Covid testing is about saving lives. Trump thinks it’s just about numbers.

“He treats testing statistics as if they were TV ratings or rally-attendance figures.

President Trump holds a chart on coronavirus testing during a meeting with North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum (R.) and Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D.) in the Cabinet Room at the White House, May 13.
President Trump holds a chart on coronavirus testing during a meeting with North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum (R.) and Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D.) in the Cabinet Room at the White House, May 13. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

During a meeting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), President Trump paused to muse about the pros and cons of testing people for the coronavirus. “The media likes to point out” that the United States has the most covid-19 cases in the world, he observed. “But we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”

The United States does not do “the most testing,” at least not on a per capita basis — not by a long shot. And if the United States did “very little” testing, that would not change the number of people infected, although it would hamper efforts to reduce that figure and limit our understanding of where the virus is spreading. But Trump’s comment revealed a great deal about how he thinks about testing and about the meaning of numbers.

Tests are perfect, in Trump’s mind, when they tell you what you want to hear — but not so great when they deliver bad news. They are useful if they lead to an impressive statistic. But if a test is going to produce an unwelcome result, why do it? To other people, it may seem obvious: It’s to produce an objective truth about what is happening to Americans. Once we know the scope of the problem in every city and state, we can plan the responses — contain the virus and gradually resume normal life. But for Trump, the purpose of testing is not to establish an objective truth. It is to generate good numbers.

Numbers are crucial to the way Trump sees the world. He cares passionately that people believe his claims that he has billions of dollars. He considered his (partly) abandoned nightly crisis briefings as TV shows whose success should be judged by the only metric for such events that matters to him: ratings. He began his presidency with an insanely obsessive row about how many people attended his inauguration. He understands the economy solely through the vicissitudes of the stock market. According to the book “Fear,” by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, Trump’s main concern in internal discussions about tax cuts was to have memorable figures: “I like those big round numbers. Ten percent, 20 percent, 25 percent.”

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Trump has been primarily concerned less with protecting lives and more with projecting positive statistics. In early March, he explained his reluctance to let 3,500 passengers, most of them Americans, disembark from the Grand Princess cruise ship anchored near San Francisco: “I would rather [leave them onboard] because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.”

Today, Trump is caught in a contradiction he cannot resolve: He likes the number of tests performed to go higher and higher but refuses to acknowledge the implications of their results. He is the author of a horror story who, when critics complain about how terrible it is, boasts that it has more pages than any novel ever written.

When this contradiction is pointed out to him, he gets irritable. Even by Trump’s standards, his outburst at Weijia Jiang, a White House correspondent for CBS News, at a news conference on Monday, was remarkable. Jiang began by observing that the president had said “many times” that “the U.S. is doing far better than any other country when it comes to tests. “Why does that matter?” she asked. “Why is this a global competition to you if Americans are still losing their lives?” Trump snapped that she should “ask China,” a non sequitur that many people took to be a reference to her Chinese American ethnicity; he soon abandoned the conference.

What was so incendiary about Jiang’s question? The answer surely does not lie in the fact that Trump has consistently distorted the data comparing U.S. testing rates with those elsewhere. In a normal democracy, this would indeed be a sensitive subject. About 25 countries surpass the United States on per capita testing, and many of the countries with which Trump compares the United States have made far more progress in curbing the spread of the virus. Experts say the United States may need 3 million or more tests daily to accomplish similar goals, given its population, but it currently tests one-tenth that number.

 But since when has Trump shown the slightest embarrassment about making false claims? His fury arose from the basic premise of the question: What the reporter was implying was that there is supposed to be a relationship between testing on the one side and reality on the other. Most people might take that relationship for granted. For Trump, it does not compute.

Consider, in this light, his reaction when Katie Miller, Vice President Pence’s press secretary, tested positive for the virus: Trump said the result illustrated why “the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great.”

“She was tested very recently and tested negative, and today, I guess, for some reason, she tested positive,” he said. “The tests are perfect, but something can happen between a test, where, it’s good, and then something happens, and then all of a sudden …” He trailed off into silence.

What Trump stopped short of saying is that a “good” test suddenly turns “bad” when it produces the “wrong” result. Tests should be like the people with whom Trump surrounds himself: sycophants who tell him only what he wants to hear. The “whole concept of tests” is not to establish facts about the unfolding crisis. It is to produce an ever-rising graph of figures, similar to TV ratings or stock market returns, that he can point to as totems of his own greatness.

His ambivalence about testing — love the statistics, hate the results — leads him into wild inconsistency. Today he takes credit for the large numbers of tests done nationally (“nearly double the number of any country”), yet only a month ago he said flatly that governors were “responsible for testing” — not Washington. Testing is not useful, Trump suggests, and may even be counterproductive; yet he cites widespread testing as a reason to lift stay-at-home orders.

He has asked Americans to go forward into public life, and the workplace, like “warriors,” even though experts caution that, without more testing and contact tracing, infections will soar. Yet the White House constantly tests its own staff members, and the president and vice president, to try to keep that particular workplace safe.

In a perfect world for Trump, tests would have no results. They would be done not to discover anything about a person, but entirely for their own sake. Whether the subjects were infected would be as irrelevant to his great victory over the virus as the actual numbers in Washington were to his record-breaking inaugural crowd.

But those obstinate tests do have results, and they show a country with 5 percent of the global population having a third of the world’s known cases of covid-19. That outrageously impertinent question — what is the point of the boasting about statistics when you are overseeing a catastrophe? — shatters Trump’s reverie of triumph and brings his tower of ever-ascending numbers tumbling back to Earth.”

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