In a Tuesday virtual town hall with a deferential Fox News panel, President Donald Trump spent much of his time obsessing over the number of flu deaths America experiences annually in order to downplay the threat of the coronavirus pandemic as he looks to reopen the American economy sooner than expected.
The president also took aim at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who earlier in the day complained about the lack of ventilators received from the federal government.
“I watched Governor Cuomo and he was very nice,” the president said of the New York governor’s press conference, which preceded the Fox News town hall, before attacking Cuomo for “complaining” about receiving only 3,000 ventilators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency despite needing, in his estimation, at least 30,000 of the devices.
“He had a choice. He had a chance,” the president continued. “He refused to order 15,000 ventilators,” Trump said, pulling out a printout of an article from far-right blog The Gateway Pundit and paraphrasing the headline: “It says that he didn’t buy the ventilators in 2015 for a pandemic, established death panels and lotteries instead.”
“I’m not blaming him or anything else,” Trump then pivoted, “but he shouldn’t be talking about us. He’s supposed to be buying his own ventilators. We are going to help.” He suggested Cuomo has not been grateful enough for the president’s help: “We are working very, very hard for the people of New York. We are working a lot with him. Then I watch him on this show complaining.”
Throughout the chat with Fox News hosts Bill Hemmer and Harris Faulkner, Trump repeatedly pivoted to an earlier talking point about the seasonal flu being just as bad or worse than COVID-19. Trump obsessively referenced the annual death count from influenza.
“We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off. Every year. When I heard the number—you know, we averaged 37,000 people a year. Can you believe that?” the president grumbled at one point. “This year we are having a bad flu season.”
“But we lose thousands of people a year to the flu,” he continued. “We never turn the country off. We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, 'Stop making cars, we don’t want cars anymore.’”
Moments later, the president circled back to this again, grousing that “we’ve never closed down the country from the flu” despite the number of deaths it causes each year. (This also prompted Trump to tout his attempts last year to broker peace between the Kurds and Turkey. Such sidetracks were common throughout the town hall.)
But the president’s obsessive comparison of the novel coronavirus to the seasonal flu was the most common refrain of the town-hall event, in which Trump’s key message was his desire to draw back on protective restrictions and get Americans back to work.
Pandemic fears have continued across the nation, as stay-at-home orders and more restrictions have been set in place to halt the spread of the virus. But on Tuesday, Trump struck a far more optimistic tone than experts and other public officials.
“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump declared at one point, drawing Hemmer to giddily respond, “That would be a great American resurrection.”
“Our country’s not built to shut down,” Trump later said. He added that he believes Americans can practice social distancing and still go to work, “and you can clean your hands five times more than you used to."
The pandemic may mean not having to shake hands with people anymore, which Trump found “might be something good coming out of this.” The president also stressed protecting workers, “but you have to protect companies like Boeing.” The country can’t lose some of these major companies because of the pandemic, the president added.
“If we lose those companies we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs, millions of jobs," Trump said. “The faster we go back the better it’s going to be.”
The country would lose people to the flu, but more would be lost by “putting the country into a massive recession or depression,” the president said.
“You’re going to lose people,” Trump warned. “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands, you’re going to have all sorts of things happen.”
The town-hall event was also a surreal showcase of Fox News sycophancy.
When Hemmer asked Trump the moment he decided “we got to move on this,” the president touted his “instinct” and claimed he knew “early on” about the pandemic’s severity. He added that his temporary China travel ban, which was imposed after the United States had already experienced its first positive cases, saved “probably tens of thousands” of lives.
The Fox anchor did not push back on the president or note how Trump spent weeks repeatedly downplaying the threat—claiming it was no threat, would eventually go away, was just like the common flu, or that warm weather would kill it—and at one point said that criticism of his dismissiveness of the coronavirus threat was a “new hoax” being pushed by Democrats and the media to undermine his presidency.
Underscoring the unmistakably friendly tone of the event, Trump at one point beamed with joy that Faulkner would be asking him a question. “First, I have to say Harris is one of my favorite people. I didn’t hear a word she said and I was hoping it wasn’t too devastating a question,” he said as Fox dealt with some technical issues. (Her question was not remotely “devastating.”)
While promoting the town hall, Fox News touted that its in-house team of medical experts would participate in the event. Much like the anchors, however, the doctors often served up softball questions or even acted in an overtly obsequious manner.
Towards the end of the Q&A, for example, Fox News contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier gushed to Trump how, “as a nation, we are beholden to you for your decisive and swift action.”