It had all the trappings of a “Mission Accomplished” moment: the banner, the presidential pomp, and a message that wasn’t true.
But what President Donald Trump wanted Monday to be a show of strength over his administration’s coronavirus testing push, complete with a banner touting “AMERICA leads the world in testing,” ended under tough questioning by reporters, causing the president to storm off abruptly.
When CBS reporter Weijia Jiang asked Trump why it was a competition to the president with those around the globe as the death toll climbs and cases increase, the president used his answer to go on the attack.
“Well, they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world,” Trump said. “And maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK? When you ask them that question, you may get a very unusual answer.”
When another female reporter, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, tried to ask a question, the president got into a brief exchange before ending the event.
Trump declared Monday that the United States had “prevailed” on testing, saying the nation will “transition into greatness.”
“We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” Trump said. Just two weeks ago, in another press conference, the president said that while his administration had made significant progress in scaling testing, it still had work to do. Monday’s announcement seems to indicate that the president thinks his team did all it needed to on testing in the last 14 days.
On Monday night, the nation’s coronavirus death toll had surpassed 80,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The United States trails countries like Denmark, Italy, and New Zealand for the total number of COVID-19 tests per 1,000 people, according to Our World in Data, as well as the daily number of tests per 1,000 people. While the U.S. is testing a great many people, according to Vox, it is also a large country, with a great many people to test.
In other words, the U.S. is hardly the global testing leader Trump portrayed it to be.
And the testing number touted by Trump on Monday evening is also behind schedule. In March, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that by the middle of the month the administration would have shipped 4 million tests. He suggested that the country would, too, test that many people by the end of the month. “Before the end of this week, another 4 million tests will be distributed,” he said. That never happened.
When pressed by reporters at a press conference last month, Pence said the media was confused—that he meant the administration would facilitate the shipment of those tests and it was up to the states to administer them. It was yet another indication that the administration’s promises on testing fell short of expectations.
Testing for the virus has continued to be a sore spot for Trump during the pandemic, as the public’s ability to actually get tested for the virus has proven to be difficult.
For the past two months, state and local officials have pleaded with the federal government for assistance on testing, claiming they simply did not have enough tests or supplies to administer them to safely and completely reopen their economies. Trump has deflected criticism, claiming the federal government has gone above and beyond to help states get back on their feet. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, earlier this month even called the federal government’s response a “success story.”
But that rosy picture is a far cry from the reality on the ground in local communities, especially those in hot spot areas. In Jersey City, New Jersey, the mayor and his team fought the state and the federal government for additional testing resources before settling on the idea that they would never have enough tests no matter how much they asked for help. And in other communities officials say that they do not have the staff or supplies to administer the tests they have on hand.
These anecdotes seem to have blowon past officials in the White House, including the president and Kushner, who have spent the majority of the last two weeks publicly praising each other.
States across the country have continued to reopen, despite concerns from some local officials about the speed of restrictions being eased and testing shortage worries.
Slides used by officials during the briefing touted the “historic scaling of testing,” along with the administration’s announcement that $11 billion was being sent to the states, via the CARES Act legislation, to be “devoted to testing capability.”
Trump also struggled to strike a balance at times during Monday’s briefing.
To one reporter’s question, Trump said, “If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.”
Minutes later, Trump echoed again that “if people want to get tested, they get tested,” before bragging about the nation’s testing capacity.
“If people want to get tested, they get tested,” Trump said. “But for the most part, they shouldn’t want to get tested. There’s no reason. They feel good, they don’t have sniffles, they don’t have sore throats. They don’t have any problem.”
—With additional reporting from Noah Shachtman and Sam Stein