Trump's press secretary smacks down a stupid liberal question about COVID deaths
Kayleigh McEnany's White House press briefings instantly became must-watch TV when she first took the podium on May 1. You need only watch one to see why, and it's not because of her looks. Or at least not entirely. The one on Tuesday, May 26, was particularly entertaining, first as a display of a certain kind of journalism and second as a show of how faulty data can still have their uses.
The fireworks began when Ryan Lizza had his chance to pop a question. Lizza is a decent representative of the type. Since graduating from U.C. Berkeley in the mid-1990s, he's had stints as a reporter for or contributor to the New Republic, Atlantic magazine, New York magazine, GQ, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and currently Politico and CNN. His longest stint — ten years at the New Yorker — ended in 2017 when he was fired for alleged sexual misconduct, which he strenuously denied. A victim, one might say, of #MeToo.
Lizza's question to McEnany was typical of the genre. Its aim was not to garner information that might shed light on the goings-on in the government. It was to juice up the reporter's (or his employer's) prefabricated story angle. Thus:
Kayleigh, we're about to cross the 100,000 dead American milestone. What would — what does the White House view as having — by Election Day, what does the White House view as the number of dead Americans, where you can say that we successfully defeated this pandemic? Is there a number?
Cute, eh? Lizza must have been giggling to himself when he rehearsed that one. Its purpose, apparently, was to evoke in a reader's mind the image of President Trump triumphing over the bodies of dead Americans, as if he and not COVID-19 had killed them.
McEnany declined the bait:
Yeah, you know, every loss of life counts. We say 100,000, but like the President says, you know, one death is something to be mourned. These 100,000 individuals have a face. The President takes this very seriously. It's why he lowered the flag to half-staff for three days, to remember these men and women.
I think, you know, Dr. [Deborah] Birx said it best when she said that in their estimates they had anywhere between 1.5 and 2.2 million people in the U.S. succumbing to the virus if we didn't shut down the economy. The President made the very hard choice of shutting down the economy, so we avoided that extraordinary number.
Every — one death is too many. We never want to see a single individual lose their life. But that being said, to be under, significantly, that high mark shows that the President did everything in his power and helped to make this number as low as humanly possible.
Because that did not give Lizza quite what he needed, he essentially repeated the question, being sure to keep in the linkage between Trump and "dead Americans." McEnany again was not having it:
You know, in a typical year 120,000 people die of suicide and drug overdose. That's in a typical year. And doctors have said, when you shut down an economy for an extended period of time, that number gets greater. People don't show up for their cancer diagnoses. There is a litany of results when you close down an economy. But closing down the economy for this amount of time kept us far below the 2.2 million number.
As we start to reopen, we keep in mind the people who are missing their screening appointments, the people who are not — who are succumbing to suicide and drug overdose because of economic hardship. This President made the right choice. It was a delicate balance, and he did it exactly as he should, guided by data, and we are far below 2.2 million dead Americans because of the actions of President Trump.
If a Lizza story on Politico or CNN has come out of this, I haven't seen it. But this brings us to the second aspect of this interrogatory with Lizza. It is McEnany's repeated use of that 2.2 million number — the projected number of Americans who would die from COVID-19 under a worst-case scenario. Even more terrifying, they would be dead within three months. That was the prediction plucked from a report issued on March 16 by the epidemiology team at Imperial College London (ICL). It was authored by Dr. Neil Ferguson, who in subsequent weeks would be dubbed Professor Lockdown by many of his peers. (Also in subsequent weeks, the good doctor would resign from the U.K. government's pandemic advisory panel after scandalously breaking his own quarantine rules by getting together with his married lover.)
"Professor Lockdown" is apt, because Ferguson's predictions landed amid already growing alarm about the pandemic, and they fed into the decision-making of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Shutdowns in both the U.S. and the U.K. increased in extent and severity. March 16 was also the day the Dow plunged 3,000 points as investors recalibrated the hit on economic activity.
Alas, Ferguson's predictions have been widely discredited — being off by one or more orders of magnitude, a matter of which the White House is surely aware. Clearly, though, both McEnany and her boss find it a useful shield when the Lizzas of the world hurl their verbal grenades.
Bill Dunne runs a communications consultancy based in Connecticut.