At another unnerving White House briefing on Friday, Donald Trump publicly disagreed with the government’s most senior immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the likelihood that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine could be an effective treatment for Covid-19, the pandemic coronavirus respiratory illness.
Fauci was asked about the drug because the president had called it a potential “game-changer” on Thursday and claimed, incorrectly, that the FDA had already approved its use and the government would “make that drug available almost immediately.”
Moments after the doctor had made it clear that there were anecdotal reports but no clinical evidence that chloroquine might be effective or safe for patients with Covid-19, or could be used as a prophylaxis, as Trump had suggested, the president said, “I think, without seeing too much, I’m probably more of a fan of that, maybe than anybody.”
When Peter Alexander of NBC News then noted that Fauci had made it clear that “there is no magic drug for coronavirus,” Trump said: “I disagree. Maybe and maybe not.”
“I will say that I am a man that comes from a very positive school when it comes to in particular one of these drugs, and we’ll see how it works out,” Trump added. “I’m not saying it will, but I think people may be surprised. By the way, that would be a game-changer.”
Trump, of course, has made a career out of marketing products of little value with unmerited hype, and seems unable to turn off that instinct, even in a time when accurate scientific information is at a premium.
“Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope?” Alexander asked him. “Are you misrepresenting our preparedness right now?”
After sarcastically deriding the question, Trump seemed to illustrate its premise by saying, “I agree with the doctor, what he said: may work; may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling. I’m, you know, a smart guy. I feel good about it. And we’re going to see, you’re going to see soon enough.”
“Obviously,” Trump added, “I think I can speak from a lot of experience, because it’s been out there for 20 years, so it’s not a drug that you have a huge amount of danger with. It’s not like a brand new drug that’s just been created that may have an unbelievable, monumental effect, like kill you.”
“I sure as hell think we ought to give it a try,” Trump concluded. “I mean there’s been some interesting things happened — and some good, very good things. Let’s see what happens, we have nothing to lose. You know the expression, What the hell do you have to lose?”
When Alexander tried to follow up by asking Trump what message he had for millions of Americans who are scared, citing the latest death toll, the president replied: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say.”
For the second day running, the president then used a briefing about a global public health emergency to attack the credibility of news organizations that have accurately reported on the slowness of his administration to tackle the threat he had spent weeks dismissing as no more dangerous than the flu.
“I think it’s a very nasty question,” Trump said, applying the label he now uses to dismiss any perceived criticism of his handling of the crisis. “The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope, and you’re doing sensationalism,” the president added, before launching into a tirade against Comcast, NBC’s parent company. “I don’t call it Comcast, I call it Concast,” Trump said. “Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows. I’ve been right a lot.”
In response to a follow up question about the drug, Fauci was then forced to explain, delicately, that what the president had just said about its safety was not true. While chloroquine was only rarely dangerous for people with malaria, Fauci said, “what we don’t know, is when you put it in the context of another disease, whether it’s safe.”
“I think it probably is going to be safe, but I like to prove things first,” Fauci added. “It’s the hope that it will work, versus proving that it will work.”
On Saturday morning, Trump upped the ante by tweeting: “Hydrocholoroquine and Azithromycin, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” and urging his own government health agencies to put the drugs “in use IMMEDIATELY.”
Fauci was again forced to explain that there remains no clinical proof that the drugs would be safe and effective for those infected with covid-19. “The president is talking about hope for people,” Fauci said at another briefing on Saturday.
The question, he added, is, “are you going to use a drug that someone says from an anecdotal standpoint, not completely proven, but might have some effect? There are those who lean to the point of giving hope and saying, ‘Give that person the option of having access to that drug.’ And then you have the other group, which is my job as a scientist, to say, ‘My job is to ultimately prove, without a doubt, that a drug is not only safe by that it actually works.'”
On Friday, Trump also responded poorly to being asked about his government’s most glaring failure, the ongoing lack of testing for the virus, which has been a key part of South Korea’s far more successful effort to slow its spread. Two weeks after Trump claimed, falsely, that “anybody that needs a test, gets a test,” Yamiche Alcindor of PBS Newshour asked “When will every American who needs a test, get a test — be able to get a test?”
“Well, you’re hearing very positive things about testing,” Trump began, trying to change the subject to his administration’s constant claims that testing capability was improving. Then he attacked the reporter for raising a failing he has tried hard distract attention from. “We’re well into this,” he said, “and nobody’s even talking about it, except for you, which doesn’t surprise me.”
When Alcindor pressed him, saying “There are Americans, though, who say they have symptoms and can’t get tested,” Trump suggested the problem was minor. “Yeah, well, okay, I’m not hearing it,” he said.
Earlier in the briefing, however, Fauci had admitted that testing was still not meeting demand. “That is a reality that is happening now,” he said. “We are not there yet, because otherwise people would be never calling up saying they can’t get a test.”
Q: "So we are not yet meeting the demand pressure [for testing]?"— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) March 20, 2020
Fauci: "We are not there yet, because otherwise people would never be calling up saying they can't get a test."
Pence: "I just can't emphasize enough about the incredible progress that we have made on testing." pic.twitter.com/5ozUFEpBOi
As Trump then directed Vice President Mike Pence to take the podium and repeat the administration’s talking point — “I just can’t emphasize enough about the incredible progress that we have made on testing” — Fauci and his fellow scientific expert, Dr. Deborah Birx, had a brief, whispered exchange behind the politicians.
Fauci, the veteran government scientist, also earned sympathy from many observers at another stage of the briefing, when Trump tossed in a gratuitous swipe at the nation’s career diplomats, referring to “The Deep State Department,” and the doctor was forced to conceal his response by hiding his face in his hand.
Updated: Saturday, March 21, 4:30 pm EDT
This article was updated to add comments from Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci on Saturday.