When an actual press conference threatened to break out in the Rose Garden on Monday, as two White House correspondents refused to let Donald Trump silence them, and a third declined his request to change the subject by asking a new question, the president abruptly turned and walked away.
It was a sudden ending to what Trump had clearly expected to be a largely self-promotional event — during which he told Americans, on the day that the coronavirus death toll passed 80,000, “We have met the moment, and we have prevailed.”
What prompted the president’s retreat was a rare moment of cooperation among members of the White House press corps who, for once, refused to play Trump’s game of ending an exchange with a reporter whenever he is under pressure by calling on someone else. That dodge usually works because correspondents from rival networks are so eager for their turn in the spotlight that they let the president decide who speaks and when.
But when his signature move suddenly failed on Monday, as the CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang pressed him on the racist undertone of his comment to her, and Kaitlan Collins of CNN and Yamiche Alcindor of PBS both refused to bail him out, Trump simply called time on the proceedings and fled.
The president’s meltdown came after Jiang put him on the spot by asking him why he was boasting about the United States having now performed more coronavirus tests than any other nation. “Why does that matter?” she asked. “Why is this global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives and we’re still seeing more cases every day?”
The president responded by lashing out at the Chinese-American reporter from West Virginia, telling her, nonsensically, that she should “ask China” her question about his obsession with testing statistics. Trump then tried to end the exchange by calling on Collins for a new question, as the White House staff cut off the mic so that Jiang’s response could not be heard, but the CNN reporter waited for her colleague from CBS to get a chance to follow up.
Jiang — who was the target of a racist joke by a White House official in March — pressed Trump on the thinly veiled racism of his reply. “Sir, why are you saying that to me, specifically, that I should ask China?” she asked, after the mic had been reactivated. After Trump replied by claiming that he would say the same “to anybody that asks a nasty question like that,” he pointed at Collins and said, “Please go ahead.”
Collins, however, again waited for Jiang to finish, which she did, by saying, “That’s not a nasty question. Why does it matter?”
Trump then tried to punish Collins by skipping her and calling on Alcindor to ask the next question instead. When Collins objected, “but you called on me,” Trump said, “I did and you didn’t respond, and now I’m calling on the young lady in the back.”
Alcindor wrote later on Twitter that instead of jumping in, she gestured at Collins to proceed. When she tried to, after saying, “I just wanted to let my colleague finish,” Trump threw up his hands in frustration, declared the event over and turned on his heels.
Likely aware of how petty he looked, Trump later cast the collegial behavior of the three correspondents as evidence of some sort of plot against him, tweeting video of the exchange with the comment: “The Lamestream Media is truly out of control. Look how they work (conspire!) together.”
The president’s fit did little to inspire confidence in his handling of the crisis but it reminded many critics of how particularly irked Trump seems to be by tough questions from women. “Pretty pathetic,” Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted in response to video of the meltdown. “Mr. Trump is a coward who tears down others to make himself feel powerful.”
Trump’s inability to answer Jiang’s question was also revealing because it cut to the heart of his constant attempts to distract Americans from his obvious inability to handle the crisis with a blizzard of irrelevant or misleading statistics.
That’s why, during every one of his recent meetings with governors in the Oval Office, the leaders of those states have been forced to sit in front of placards detailing exactly how many pieces of medical equipment the federal government has provided to them since the start of the crisis.
Missing from those tallies has been any indication of how many of those items the governors requested or how many of their residents have become infected or died in that same period from the pandemic virus the president claimed in February would simply “disappear.”
During Monday’s Rose Garden event, Trump also returned to perhaps his most brazen lie about the Covid-19 death toll — the entirely false claim he has been making since mid-April that the United States is, with Germany, one of the two countries with the least number of deaths per capita from the disease. As I reported last weekend, this is not even close to true.
Trump repeats the massive lie that the U.S. and Germany "are the two best in deaths per 100,000" from Covid-19. As I reported the U.S. mortality rate is 132nd; Germany's rate is so much lower that 50,000 Americans would still be alive if we matched it https://t.co/Ch1hqm3RRN pic.twitter.com/ZfikBopIC5— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) May 11, 2020
When Trump claimed in his scripted opening remarks on Monday that “Germany and the United States are leading the world in lives saved per 100,000,” and later ad-libbed that “Germany and the United States are the two best in deaths per 100,000,” he appeared to be referring to the latest statistics on deaths in only the eight countries with the most confirmed cases of Covid-19. In that ranking, if all of the other countries on Earth are ignored, it is true that the U.S. mortality rate is the seventh-worst and the German one the eight-worst.
But that is very different from “leading the world in lives saved.” The fact is that while six Western European countries do have more deaths per capita from Covid-19 than the U.S., there are more than 130 countries with lower mortality rates than America, including Germany, which is far lower. As of May 11, according to statistics updated daily by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the U.S. had 24.66 deaths from Covid-19 per 100,000 citizens, compared to just 9.24 per 100,000 citizens in Germany.
What this means is that if the federal government in Washington had been as successful at keeping its citizens alive as the one in Berlin, the death toll in the U.S. would not be, as it is today, 82,246, but 30,817 instead.
In other words, Trump is engaged in a kind of statistical sleight-of-hand, one that seems designed to distract attention from the fact that more than 50,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19 would still be alive today had he managed the crisis as well as Angela Merkel.
Updated: Tuesday, May 12, 5:47 p.m. PDT
This article was updated with the latest Covid-19 mortality rates for the 10 countries with the most confirmed cases as of May 11.