President Donald Trump on Friday tried to distance himself from his suggestion that people infected with COVID-19 consider injecting sunlight or disinfectant into their bodies, claiming that his comments the day before were merely sarcasm meant to rile up reporters.
But by that point, enough people had taken him literally (and for good reason, since there was no trace of sarcasm in his voice) that at least one local health department was noticing an uptick in calls related to people ingesting disinfectants. Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency claimed that it had received “more than 100” such calls in the aftermath of Trump’s Thursday presser.
Additionally, the small but vocal community of people who consume bleach in a misguided attempt to cure medical conditions, including autism, were reveling on Friday in what they interpreted to be a presidential endorsement. Many of them use a product called Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), a chlorine dioxide product which the FDA considers “equivalent to industrial bleach.”
On April 17, the FDA sought an injunction against the “Genesis II Church of Health and Healing,” which sells MMS, to prevent the organization from selling MMS as a cure for Covid-19 and other ailments. The church’s “bishop,” Mark Grenon, wrote Trump a letter in April claiming that his chlorine dioxide product could “rid the body of Covid-19.” It’s not clear whether Trump actually saw Grenon’s letter.
Jordan Sather, a prominent QAnon conspiracy theorist who promotes MMS, tweeted that Trump’s comments proved that MMS was safe to consume.
“How AWESOME would it be if he starts openly looking at Chlorine Dioxide for COVID!” Sather tweeted, adding that it was a good “lung cleaner.”
Sather and the Genesis II Church didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Inside the West Wing, it was clear that the president’s talk of studying bizarre injections was not something that Trump had put a lot of thought into, nor did it seem like something he’d spent much time dwelling on privately before blurting it out.
Four senior administration officials and two sources close to the president each said on Friday that they had not previously heard Trump ever bring up disinfectant injections as something scientists should test as a coronavirus treatment. All were dumbfounded by what he said during the televised briefing. Several official Trump surrogates reached by The Daily Beast on Friday morning had zero appetite to defend the president’s remarks, and were simply waiting for this bit of inconvenient news to slip out of the cable-news cycle.
“I was just sitting there watching it [live] and thinking to myself, ‘I guess this is going to be the thing tomorrow,’” said one of the administration officials.
In the halls of the White House, top aides went into a very familiar damage-control mode. A former senior White House official noted that in the West Wing, Trump’s lieutenants have a simple standard operating procedure for when the president “says something dumb that he probably should not have said”: just claim he was taken out of context or misinterpreted, insist that his underlying point was valid or good, and then go on the offense, usually by complaining about mainstream-media outlets treating Trump unfairly or obsessing over insignificant detail.
By early Friday, that’s exactly what Trump’s aides were doing, with newly installed White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany blasting out a statement reading, “President Trump has repeatedly said that Americans should consult with medical doctors regarding coronavirus treatment, a point that he emphasized again during yesterday’s briefing. Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”
But roughly three hours later, the president upended that strategy in its entirety. By Friday afternoon, Trump was telling reporters at the White House that he was just playing a big ol’ joke on the press.
“I was asking the question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” he said of a statement he made in which he clearly was earnestly questioning his own health experts as to whether they should study if disinfectant could work to kill COVID-19 inside the body.
Rare are the occasions when the president defends himself by saying he’d used airtime meant to inform the public of critical medical information to, instead, crack jokes. But, for the White House, there were not many other options. The science certainly was not on their side.
UV-C light, the shortest wavelength of ultraviolet light, is the most damaging kind of ultraviolet light which harms genetic material in organisms. Researchers have used it to clean N95 masks and hospital rooms and manufacturers use it in air filters to kill germs. It’s also why health experts strongly recommend that people don’t expose themselves to UV-C radiation. UV-C radiation is harmful to both skin and eyes and prolonged exposure increases the risk of skin cancer.
“I am not aware of any way to or evidence for safely shining ultraviolet light within a person to treat infections,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and Medicine. “Ultraviolet light is used as a disinfectant for surfaces and materials such as empty hospital rooms, but to my knowledge it is not safe for use on or in people.”
Before President Trump’s comments on Thursday, the World Health Organization listed the idea of using UV radiation as a coronavirus disinfectant in humans under a section on COVID-19 myths. “UV lamps should not be used to sterilize hands or other areas of skin as UV radiation can cause skin irritation,” it warned.
And after Trump wondered aloud whether it was possible to use bleach against the coronavirus in humans “by injection inside” late Thursday, the EPA issued a press release on safe disinfectant use. When using disinfectants, it warned, “Never apply the product to yourself or others. Do not ingest disinfectant products.”
“It would be life threatening to ingest/inject/inhale detergents, bleach or any household cleaning products,” Dr. Jonathan Spicer, an assistant professor of surgery at McGill University, wrote The Daily Beast in an email.
Even the U.S. Surgeon General seemed to be obliquely warning people against following the president’s suggestions in a tweet early Friday morning.
But it wasn’t just medical experts who took issue with Trump’s bleach proposal. Rapper Snoop Dogg responded to the suggestion on Instagram, sharing a drawing of the president drinking bleach with the caption: “Aight u go first then ya voters and I'll be here waiting to c [sic] how y'all feel before I go under my kitchen sink for some bleach.”
On Friday evening, Trump was back at the White House briefing room. But this time, he didn’t make any new suggestions about new coronavirus cures. He ended the briefings minutes after it began, before reporters could ask about the disinfectant row.
—With additional reporting by Blake Montgomery and Pilar Melendez