Even by President Donald Trump’s historically low standards, the town hall on reopening the nation’s economy featured some astounding falsehoods on Sunday night: that he was never warned about the novel coronavirus until late January; that all 43,000 people who returned to the United States from China after the implementation of his travel ban were tested; that the American people will have a vaccine by Christmas.
But perhaps the biggest demonstrable lie told under the unblinking eyes of Abraham Lincoln was Trump’s repeated insistence that, despite the mounting death toll from the coronavirus pandemic and the collapsing national economy, “it’s all working out.”
“I think it’s all working out. You know, the numbers are heading in the right direction,” Trump said, in response to a question about workers at meat processing plants being forced back on the job despite fears of spreading the virus. “It’s all working out. It’s all working out. It’s horrible that we have to go through it, but it’s all working out.”
The town hall—billed by Fox News as “America Together: Returning to Work” and broadcast live from the memorial built to honor a president who, earlier this weekend, Trump said did less for black people than he has—was in many ways a highlight reel of the president’s inadequate response to a pandemic that has claimed more than 68,000 lives, including a record 2,909 just on Thursday.
The president casually announced that the final death toll could reach 100,000 people, more than 50 percent higher than he told Americans only a few weeks ago. He made scientifically dubious claims about the speed and availability of a potential vaccine—throwing in a vow to “be AIDS-free within eight years.” And he saved his most emotional answer for a question from a New Jersey guidance counselor who asked him to “please let go of those behaviors” and “characteristics that do not serve you” when dealing with the press.
Trump’s response to that request, as best as it can be distilled, included a rambling list of supposed accomplishments unrelated to the pandemic, including increased military spending and the formation of the “Space Force,” as well as the assertion that not even Lincoln ever faced such mistreatment while in office.
“I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen. The closest would be that gentleman right up there,” Trump said, nodding at Daniel Chester French’s statue of the 16th president in the temple where, as Royal Cortissoz’s epitaph states, “the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
“They always said Lincoln, nobody got treated worse than Lincoln,” Trump said. “I believe I am treated worse.”
In the days since Trump meanderingly suggested that Americans might be able to cure themselves of COVID-19 by injecting either sunlight or disinfectant into their bodies, the White House has attempted to shift the focus of its coronavirus response from public health to an economic message.
But as question after question came in from across the country about the specifics of Trump’s response to a pandemic that has effectively shuttered the national economy, Trump primarily responded with boasts about past accomplishments, mini-tirades about past grievances, or generalities about how the nation will “win bigger than we’ve ever won before” once the crisis abates.
“You’re gonna get a job where you’re gonna get more money, frankly,” Trump told a single mom in Alabama who said she was facing eviction and struggled to pay even the smallest bills. “I’ve got a great feel for this stuff.”
“I want ’em to go back, yeah, I want to get our country back,” Trump said, in response to a pair of questions from a teacher and student about his plan to reopen the nation’s schools. “We have to go back. We have to go back. And, whatever it is.”
“It depends on where you’re coming from,” Trump told a D.C. restaurateur who asked about specific protocols to keep restaurants safe. “It goes up and it goes up rapidly,” he added of the death toll, but sunnily explained that the nation’s dead are “at the very lower end of the plane.”
Every desired answer, from a timeline for opening restaurants at full capacity to filling sports stadiums and college graduations, was predicated on Trump’s enthusiastic prediction that “we are going to have a vaccine by the end of this year.”
“The doctors would say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t say that.’ I’ll say what I think,” Trump said, doubling down on a vaccine development schedule that would surpass even the most hysterically optimistic timelines put forward by epidemiologists for the rollout of a potential vaccine. “I think we’re going to have a vaccine much sooner than later… Look, a vaccine has never gone like it’s gone now.”
At one point, Trump marveled at the changes in everyday life as a result of the pandemic, noting the yawning distance between himself and Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. But that distance, while effective at halting the spread of the deadly coronavirus, did little to stop the spread of another pandemic: what World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called “an infodemic.”
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” Ghebreyesus told the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 15, the same day as Trump’s third-to-last all-day visit to one of his golf clubs. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”