Trump Bungles Hit on Cuomo and Shatters Own Wrongness Record on “1917” Pandemic

The president's attack on Andrew Cuomo misfired, and he mistakenly referred to the 1918 flu pandemic as something that happened in 1917 for the 24th time.

Vice President Mike Pence, right, and President Donald Trump watch a video of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, April 19, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
At a White House briefing on Sunday, President Donald Trump screened a video clip of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's briefing earlier in the day. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

It was amateur hour at the White House on Sunday, as the president’s effort to neutralize criticism of his failure to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic was undermined by his A/V team, and he mistakenly referred to the 1918 flu pandemic as something that happened in 1917 for the 25th time in the past five weeks.

As he did last week, Trump took took time out of what was supposed to be a briefing to update the American people on the public health emergency to screen clips of a political rival, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, praising aspects of the federal response to the crisis. The aim was not to inform or reassure the public, but to settle a personal score.

When the first clip, of remarks from Cuomo earlier on Sunday, began with the sound turned down, Trump mocked his own tech team from the stage. “No sound?” Trump asked. “Other than that, it’s a good clip — he’s a nice looking guy,” he added sarcastically.

Trump was annoyed because the clip had been selected, and posted on Twitter by a member of his reelection campaign staff, because it started with Cuomo saying: “Do I have faith in the president? Look, what the federal government did, working with states, as I just said, was a phenomenal accomplishment.”

The president’s irritation increased when that clip ended and his team couldn’t find the second one he was expecting — of Cuomo saying, two weeks ago, that no one in New York had died because of a shortage of hospital beds or ventilators. “They left out the good part,” Trump said. “Good job, fellas.”

When the second clip of Cuomo was finally located 40 minutes later, the president again paused the briefing to play it, since, presumably, it looked to him like proof that he had been right to attack Cuomo on Friday for needlessly “complaining.” New York, Trump tweeted as he watched Cuomo on television that day, “didn’t need or use” the thousands of hospital beds the federal government provided. “Cuomo ridiculously wanted ’40 thousand Ventilators’,” Trump added. “We gave him a small fraction of that number, and it was plenty.”

While the president seemed to think this cherry-picking from Cuomo’s comments over the past two weeks showed that he had been right to not meet all of New York’s requests for help, by playing those clips, Trump inadvertently drew attention back to what Cuomo had been criticizing the federal government for on Friday: the ongoing failure to ramp up testing for the virus nationwide, which experts say is necessary for the lockdowns to end safely.

“The federal government cannot wipe their hands of this and say, ‘Oh the states are responsible for testing.’ We cannot do it without federal help,” Cuomo said during his own televised daily briefing on Friday, about 20 minutes before Trump started heckling him on Twitter.

Without federal coordination, Cuomo added, “we wind up in this bizarre situation that we were in last time: 50 states all competing for these precious resources, in this case it’s testing, and then the federal government comes in and says to those companies, ‘I want to buy the tests also.’ This is mayhem.”

When a reporter informed the governor that the president was tweeting insults at him in real time, Cuomo said, “First of all, if he’s sitting at home watching TV, maybe he should get up and go to work, right?”

The governor then suggested that it was absurd for the president to claim that New York had asked for equipment and beds it did not need, since the projections they relied on had come from Trump’s own White House coronavirus task force. “The number came from a projection from him — from him,” Cuomo said. “The projections were high? They were the president’s projections,” the governor added. “So for him to say to anyone, ‘Well, you relied on projections and the projections were wrong,’ they’re your projections Mr. President. So, were we foolish for relying on your projections, Mr. President?”

As for his supposed ingratitude, the governor said that he had already expressed his thanks on numerous occasions for federal help in converting the Javits Center in Manhattan into an emergency hospital and sending a Navy hospital ship to the city. “I don’t know, what am I supposed to do, send a bouquet of flowers?” he asked.

Cuomo then pivoted away from Trump’s backward looking effort to justify his initial failure to prepare the country for the pandemic and returned to the president’s attempt to push responsibility for testing onto the states.

“The president doesn’t want to help on testing,” Cuomo said. “I said the one issue we need help with is testing. He said 11 times, ‘I don’t want to get involved in testing. It’s too complicated, it’s too hard.’ I know it’s too complicated and it’s too hard. That’s why we need you to help,” the governor said.

“He wants to say, ‘Well, I did enough.’ Cuomo added, of Trump. “Yeah, none of us have done enough. We haven’t, because it’s not over.”

At a subsequent briefing on Monday, Trump again took a comment by New York’s governor out of context, carefully omitting the part of Cuomo’s new remarks in which he said that the federal government needed to coordinate the supply of chemical reagents for test kits that states are having a hard time securing on their own.

“I want to draw your attention to Gov. Cuomo’s remarks during his press conference today,” Trump said. “He said, ‘The president is right: The state’s testing is up to the states…. I think the president is right when he says the states should lead.'”

Trump appeared to be citing a clip of that part of Cuomo’s new remarks on Monday posted on Twitter by a right-wing blogger. What Trump’s edit of Cuomo’s comments left out is what he said just eight seconds later: “What the states will run into is when you talk to those labs, the 300 labs, they buy machines and equipment from national manufacturers. And those labs can only run as many tests as the national manufacturers provide them chemicals, reagents, and lab kits. The national manufacturers say they have supply chain issues. I’d like the federal government to help on those supply chain issues.”

“This is a quagmire because it’s not just funding,” Cuomo added. “Because I’ve offered funding to the national manufacturers and I’ve said, ‘I’ll pay. What do I have to pay to get the tests?’ The national manufacturers will say, ‘Well, it’s not that easy. I can’t get the chemicals. The chemicals come from China. I can’t make the vials fast enough. I can’t make the swabs fast enough.’ So I don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong with that national supply chain question. But that’s where the federal government could help.”

Later in Monday’s briefing, Trump claimed that complaints about the lack of a coordinated federal testing strategy to allow states to trace infections, even when voiced by Republican governors, are part of a contrived political attack on him.

When Jill Colvin of The Associated Press asked Trump on Sunday about Cuomo’s criticism of his failure to boost testing, the president first attacked her for not saying that the governor had said “we did a phenomenal job.” In fact, Cuomo did not say that. He said that the “phenomenal accomplishment” of flattening the curve of infection had been achieved by the country’s citizens, with the help of federal and state governments. “People did it, but government facilitates people’s actions,” Cuomo said in a part of the clip Trump was talking over as it played in the briefing room. “Heroic efforts on behalf of people, as facilitated by government — federal and state,” he added.

In his remarks on Friday, Cuomo had been even more clear on this point. “We proved we can control the beast — we can reduce the rate of infection. We did that by our response to the crisis,” Cuomo said. “Credit to all New Yorkers, all Americans. They flattened the curve, nobody else — no government agency, no public health expert. People’s actions flattened the curve,” the governor said.

When Colvin pressed Trump to respond to the pleas from Cuomo and other governors “that what they need, though, is a national strategy when it comes to testing, because on supplies they say that they’re competing against one another,” the president blithely dismissed the concern.

“We’re doing great on testing,” he claimed, even though experts at the Harvard Global Health Institute estimate that the United States needs to do between 500,000 and 600,000 tests a day to adequately track the spread of the virus, about four times the current average of 150,000.

“What about the reagents,” Colvin asked, noting that governors have had difficulty securing the necessary supplies for Covid-19 tests, particularly chemical reagents, which are now in short supply due to an unprecedented, global spike in demand. Trump again acted as if the problem, which is real, did not exist. “We’re in great shape, it’s so easy to get,” Trump said, falsely. “Reagents and swabs are so easy to get.”

Earlier in Sunday’s briefing, as Trump continued to claim that a failure to prepare for the pandemic was in no way his fault, he said that “not since 1917, more than a hundred years ago, has anything like this happened.” According to transcripts of his remarks on the White House website, it was the 25th time since March 11 that he has incorrectly referred to the 1918 influenza pandemic as an event that took place in 1917.

That Trump so frequently makes this mistake is particularly odd given that his own paternal grandfather, Frederick Trump, was among the estimated 675,000 Americans who died of the flu, passing away in the first year of the pandemic. The president’s insecure grasp on the most basic fact of the 1918 pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide, does seem to suggest that he is not particularly engaged in studying the history of that contagion for lessons in how to tackle this one. (The number of times he has repeated this mistake also seems to suggest that no one who works for Trump is willing to correct him. Then again, since his trade advisor Peter Navarro recently told 60 Minutes, “look, this hasn’t happened since 1917,” there might not be that many people in Trump’s White House who even know he’s wrong.)

A screenshot of Peter Navarro, the White House trade advisor, speaking to “60 Minutes” this month.

Photo: CBS News, via Twitter

If Trump were to crack open “The Great Influenza,” a history of that pandemic written by John Barry, an adjunct professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, he might be relieved to learn that his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, was even more lax than he has been in response to a virus that killed an estimated 195,000 Americans in October of 1918 alone. Wilson was so obsessed with winning the war in Europe he had brought the United States into in 1917 that he only responded to the spread of the deadly virus in military camps in the U.S. when it threatened to disrupt the process of getting fresh troops across the Atlantic to the front lines. Even then, the president allowed his generals, eager for as many troops as possible, to overrule the military doctors who wanted to stop transports until the epidemic was contained.

“He never released any statement about influenza whatsoever. The federal government did next to nothing,” Barry told WBUR in Boston last month. “Of course, we had a different society then. But everything was up to local leadership,” he said.

“Because we were at war, the national public health leaders basically lied to the public,” Barry added. “They said things like, ‘This is ordinary influenza by another name.’ Or, ‘You have nothing to fear. Proper precautions are taken,’ so forth and so on. This was echoed by local leaders in many cities, Philadelphia being a prime example. So they had a big Liberty Loan parade scheduled, which they declined to cancel, although all the medical community urged them to. And 48 hours later, just out like clockwork, influenza exploded in the city.”

“In 1918, the lack of national leadership meant that every city and state pursued its own approach to dealing with the epidemic,” Dr. Jonathan Quick, an adjunct professor at the Duke Global Health Institute, explained in the Wall Street Journal last month. “This created a series of natural experiments that allowed later researchers to assess the effectiveness of different approaches. They found that cities which implemented isolation policies (such as quarantining houses where influenza was present) and ‘social distancing’ measures (such as closing down schools, theaters and churches) saw death rates 50% lower than those that did not. The cities that fared best were the ones that started isolating patients early and continued until the epidemic was unquestionably under control.”

In New York City, which also hosted big Liberty bonds parades that September, the local health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, did take some forward-looking actions to stop the spread of infection.

Parades urging people to buy Liberty bonds to aid the war effort were front page news in the September 30, 1918 New York Times, while reports on the influenza epidemic were relegated to page 9.

First, as Barry wrote, “he eliminated rush hour by staggering the opening times of factories, shops and cinemas.” Then he set up 150 emergency health centers across the city to identify and care for the sick and dispatched doctors and nurses to Grand Central and Penn Station to examine incoming rail passengers who were ill. And, most controversially, he kept the schools open, unlike in neighboring states, in an effort to survey and treat the city’s children. With a large impoverished, immigrant population, the children were kept in school in part to make sure they were fed properly and so that they could be used to communicate public health guidance to their families. The gamble paid off, and school-age children in New York that fall were less affected by the pandemic than in other cities.

Of course Copeland, as a city official, was unable to stop the flow of troop ships from the city. And a lot of his good work was undone in a single day. On October 12, 1918, near the peak of the outbreak’s second wave, Copeland was forced to let a massive Liberty Day parade proceed down Fifth Avenue, from 72nd Street to Washington Square, attended by an estimated 500,000 people. It was led by President Wilson.

Update: April 20, 2:10 p.m. PDT
This article was updated to report Trump’s new comments on Monday, again taking remarks by Gov. Andrew Cuomo out of context, an to add references to Peter Navarro’s recent interview on “60 Minutes,” and Liberty bonds parades in New York City in September, 1918.

Update: May 4, 12:39 p.m. PDT
Since this article was published on April 20, Donald Trump has continued to mistakenly refer to the 1918 influenza pandemic as something that took place in 1917 in public remarks. In an interview with Fox News broadcast from the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, May 3, he made the mistake three more times, bringing the total to at least 38 incorrect references in less than two months.

The final reference of the night was Trump’s claim that he recently transmitted this mistaken history to his son and grandchildren. “I sat down with my son. I sat down with my grandchildren. I said, ‘A terrible thing has happened. It’s a thing that we’ve never experienced.’ I said, ‘I guess, you could go back, over 100 years, and you could go to 1917 and we experienced it, but Europe experienced it much worse. It could have been 100 million people died.'” 

Trump’s doggedness in repeating the error has even spawned a host of conspiracy theories among his most ardent supporters who believe that he must be doing so intentionally, as a way of secretly communicating with them in a code they need to decipher.

“Trump is bringing our attention to 1917. What is significant about 1917? The US entered WW1 on April 6, 1917 AND… The British Royal Family changed their name to WINDSOR on July 17, 1917,” a Trump supporter who used the handle Carrie4Truth tweeted on April 7. “Corona means CROWN. We are at war with the House of Windsor. They are being dethroned.”

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