In late March, Deborah Birx assured us that President Donald Trump is a savvy consumer of medical information. “He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data,” said Birx, a medical expert on Trump’s coronavirus task force. “And I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.”
On Thursday night, Birx looked on as the same president floated the idea of injecting people with disinfectant.
Trump’s awkward and dangerous suggestion Thursday night is getting all the attention right now, but it’s hardly the first time Trump has offered dodgy medical ideas or made clear he’s not in tune with what health officials around him say. What’s most inexplicable about some of these comments is that they are things he could just as well be floating privately, rather than pushing them out into the public sphere with the cameras trained on him.
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of Trump’s medical freelancing was back in early March, when he welcomed pharmaceutical executives to a roundtable to talk about vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.
Trump repeatedly pressed them on timetables for drugs, suggesting vaccines could be ready to deploy in a matter of months. The executives, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and coronavirus task for member Anthony S. Fauci repeatedly sought to guide Trump in a different direction, but Trump was difficult to deter.
It got to the point where Fauci admitted the president simply needed to be better informed.
“Would you make sure you get the president the information that a vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable,” Fauci said.
Fauci, in fact, had made this abundantly clear just days earlier at a briefing — a briefing in which Trump stood next to him.
At the same event, Trump floated another idea reminiscent of his proposal Thursday. He asked the executives to verify that you can’t just use the regular flu vaccine on coronavirus — as if such a simple solution wouldn’t have occurred to these experts.
“But the same vaccine could not work?” he said. “You take a solid flu vaccine — you don’t think that would have an impact or much of an impact on corona?”
“No,” Regeneron chief executive Leonard Schleifer replied.
“Probably not,” Fauci added, charitably.
Trump has taken a similar tack with drugs like chloroquine and hydrochlroroquine, arguing that we could just apply something with another proven use for this purpose. But while he’s hardly the only leader to raise the possibility that it could be used to treat the virus, he has gone further than many others by playing up its safety and suggesting it’s a no-lose proposition.
“It’s a very strong, powerful medicine. But it doesn’t kill people,” Trump said earlier this month. “We have some very good results and some very good tests.”
“What really do you have to lose?” Trump said at another point.
It turns out people have plenty to lose and that it might kill people. This week we get an early look at a Veterans Affairs Department study that showed people who took the drug had worse outcomes than those who hadn’t. (The study has not been peer-reviewed yet.) The findings echo what groups like the American Medical Association have been warning about the downside of the potential treatment.
Trump’s allergy to reliable medical information is something that predated his presidency. He has at times:
• Played up debunked theories linking vaccines to autism.
• Suggested wind turbines might cause cancer.
• Reportedly said exercise drains your body’s battery, and said, “All my friends who work out all the time, they’re going for knee replacements, hip replacements — they’re a disaster.”
• Gotten a series of doctors to make dubious claims about his personal health.
• Early in the coronavirus crisis, he also played up the idea that treating the virus could be relatively easy.
“It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for,” he said in late February. “And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.”
Ever since then, he’s been on a quest to find an easy fix for the situation, moving from an unrealistic timeline for a vaccine to unproven drug treatments and now to sunlight and disinfectant — all the while forcing the health officials to account for what he’s saying and try to massage it in a more realistic direction.
Birx looked on in apparent puzzlement as Trump was making his comments Thursday and gently tried to push him in a different direction.
“I would like you to speak to the medical doctors to see if there’s any way that you can apply light and heat to cure,” Trump said. “You know — but if you could. And maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Again, I say, maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor. But I’m like a person that has a good you know what.”
Soon, Birx reinforced that Trump isn’t a doctor — and that perhaps his instincts aren’t as great as he thinks and his adherence to medical information isn’t as strong as she had previously suggested.
“Not as a treatment,” she said of whether people had looked at his idea. She then tried to salvage things by talking about how fevers are actually a good sign. “But not as — I’ve not seen heat or …” she trailed off.
Trump was characteristically undeterred.
“I think it’s a great thing to look at,” he said. “I mean, you know. OK?”
Even as Trump was dispatching these ideas, The New York Times was reporting that he rarely prepares for these briefings or attends meetings with the task force. The performance Thursday was a testament to that.