Several of the moments in Donald Trump’s interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios have gone viral for good reason, but the extended clip where the two men argue about how well the U.S. is doing when it comes to coronavirus cases is especially jaw-dropping—and informative. As Swan presses Trump on the terrible outcomes in the U.S., we get to to see how Trump’s mind works, beat by beat. It is, of course, terrifying.
Throughout the segment, Trump is shuffling and reshuffling a stack of charts of U.S. COVID-19 statistics, pulling out pieces of paper to try to make various points. And it’s obvious that these are charts his staff have given him to support his existing worldview: everything is fine. He’s doing a great job. The U.S. is not an international embarrassment. But in Swan he’s up against a relentless interviewer who politely but firmly insists on reality as the alternative to Trump’s charts, leaving Trump insisting that “You can’t do that” when Swan realizes “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”
That “You can’t do that” is so telling. Because it makes obvious both that Trump’s thinking is not agile and flexible enough to deal with information in a slightly different form than it has previously been presented to him and that no one in Trump’s orbit is giving him difficult facts, facts that in this case lay bare his failures. Specifically, the large death toll attached to his failures.
Trump’s appeal is supposed to be that he’s straightforward, tells a simple moral story. He may be lying and the moral story may be racist, but the man supposedly goes straight to the meat of things, uncomplicated by challenging details. Here, he’s frantically shuffling papers, looking for the statistic that will make him look good, while Swan returns repeatedly to a simple fact: “A thousand Americans have died today.” “60,000 Americans are in hospital. A thousand dying every day.” “It’s a thousand a day.” And that’s the information that Trump is so desperately trying to explain away by talking about cases and tests and here, look at this paper.
It’s devastating. Devastating to Trump because we see him so clearly. And devastating to the United States of America, because this is what we have to live under for at least another five and a half months, while people keep dying.
Trump: Take a look at some of these charts.
Swan: I’d love to.
Trump: We’re going to look.
Swan: Let’s look.
Trump: And if you look at death [shuffling papers] this one …
Swan: Starting to go up again.
Trump: Right here, United States is lowest in numerous categories, uh, we’re lower than the world.
Swan: Lower than the world?
Trump: Lower than Europe. Look, take a look. Right here. Here’s case deaths.
Swan: Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.
Trump: You can’t do that.
Swan: Why can’t I do that?
Trump: You have to go by where … look, here is the United States. You have to go by the cases, the cases—
Swan: Why not as a proportion of population?
Trump: When you have somebody, what it says is when you have somebody that has it, where there’s a case, the people that live from those cases.
Swan: But surely a relevant statistic to say if the U.S. has X population and X percentage of death of that population …
Trump: NO! Because you have to go by the cases.
Swan: Look at South Korea, for example. 51 million population, 300 deaths. It’s like, it’s crazy—
Trump: You don’t know that.
Swan: I do!
Trump: You don’t know that.
Swan: You think they’re faking their statistics? South Korea?
Trump: I won’t get into that because I have a very good relationship with the country, but you don’t know that. And they have spikes. Look here’s one right here, United States, you take the number of cases, we’re last, meaning we’re first.
Swan: Last? I don’t know what we’re first in. What?
Trump: Take a look! It’s cases! And we have cases
Swan: Okay, um ...
Trump: And we have cases ...
Swan: A thousand Americans have died today. I understand with cases it’s different.
Trump: No but you’re not reporting it correctly, Jonathan.
Swan: I think I am, but—
Trump: If you take a look at this other chart. This is our testing, I believe ...
Swan: Yeah, we do more tests.
Trump: Well, don’t we get credit for that? And because we do more tests, we have more cases. In other words, we test more, we have, now take a look, the top thing, that’s a good thing, Jonathan.
Swan: If hospital rates were going down and deaths were going down, I’d say terrific. You deserve to be praised for testing, but they’re all going up.
Swan: 60,000 Americans are in hospital. A thousand dying every day.
Trump: —newspapers, they usually talk about new cases, new cases, new cases—
Swan: I’m talking about death. It’s going up.
Trump: Death is way down from where it was.
Swan: It’s a thousand a day. It was two and a half thousand, it went down to 500, now it’s going up again.
Trump: Death? Excuse me. Where it was is much higher than where it is right now.
Swan: It went down and now it’s going up again.
Trump: But now it’s going down again. It’s going down in Arizona, it’s going down in Florida, it’s going down—
Swan: Nationally it’s going up.
Trump: Take a look, these are the tests.
Swan: It’s going down in Florida?
Trump: Yeah, it leveled out and it’s going down, that’s my report as of yesterday.