WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the course of a few weeks, President Donald Trump veered from confidently assuring Americans his administration had the coronavirus outbreak “very well under control” to declaring a national emergency and tweeting all-caps caution about the pandemic that has upended every facet of American life.
Trump meandered from denial to grudging acceptance, and he seeded conflicting, inaccurate and eyebrow-raising commentary on a country desperate for unvarnished, even shock-to-the-system, guidance.
Throughout the global coronavirus crisis, Trump’s statements have been colored by baseless optimism. Sometimes, his commentary has been flatly wrong. Frequently, it’s been amplified by aides and allies with the help of conservative media.
As he confronts the most serious national crisis of his presidency, the lack of precision has cut into Trump’s credibility at a moment when he needs it more than ever, analysts say.
“It started out with really what can only be described as full-blown denial,” said Brian Ott, a communication studies professor at Texas Tech University who has done extensive research on the president’s social media rhetoric. “Then as the crisis spread and as it became a pandemic ... it just wasn't viable rhetoric anymore because it wasn't at all where the American public was at.”
Early on, the president downplayed the coronavirus as something similar to the seasonal flu — nothing that Americans should be overly concerned about and something that would quickly pass.
His optimistic public comments often didn’t match the reality on the ground or even how U.S. public health agencies were approaching the looming crisis behind the scenes.
In one of his first substantive public remarks on the virus, during a visit in late January to an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan, Trump acknowledged that the U.S. had seen a smattering of infections but predicted a “very good ending for it.”