High Hopes
August 25, 2020

Scientists were immediately skeptical when Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn, Health Secretary Alex Azar, and President Trump announced Sunday evening that the FDA had given emergency use approval for plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients, right before the Republican National Convention. And they were baffled when all three men claimed plasma had been shown to reduce deaths by 35 percent, meaning, Hanh said, that 35 out of 100 COVID-19 patients "would have been saved because of the administration of plasma."

That impressive statistic was evidently excavated from a small subsample of a large observational study from the Mayo Clinic, and it doesn't mean what Trump, Azar, and Hahn said it does. Hahn and whoever else came up with the number "appeared to have mixed up absolute risk and relative risk, which are basic concepts in economics and in the presentation of data from clinical trials," The Washington Post notes, explaining:

Essentially, the Trump administration figures had compared one group of patients who got a certain kind of plasma with a group who got a different concentration at a different point in the disease, thus showing the relative difference between those groups. It was not a measure of what happens when some patients get plasma and some don't — the kind of research necessary to send a signal of whether a treatment is truly helping. The FDA also considered data from other studies. [The Washington Post]

After facing criticism from incredulous medical scientists, Hanh acknowledged his error:

Scientists have reasonable hopes that convalescent plasma, a century-old treatment, will be effective at helping COVID-19 patients recover, at least until a reliable treatment is found or developed. But so far the evidence is "still very low-quality" and "not conclusive, World Health Organization chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan cautioned Monday.

It isn't really the exaggeration of plasma's benefits that worry medical experts, The New York Times reports. It's that, given how "Trump has appeared to politicize the process of approving treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus," nobody will believe "the scientific judgment of the FDA" when it says a vaccine is safe and effective. Peter Weber

April 23, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak is still very much alive in the U.S. — nearly 30,000 new cases and 2,100 deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the total to 842,629 cases and 46,784 deaths, according to counts by Johns Hopkins University and the COVID-19 Tracking Project. And there are serious concerns, evidently shared by President Trump, that premature efforts to lift mitigation efforts will keep the coronavirus active for weeks or months to come.

But at Wednesday's coronavirus press briefing, Trump not only spoke of the outbreak as if it were in the past but also repeatedly insisted it may not come back. "What we've just gone through, we will not go through — you could have some embers of corona and you could have a big flu system," but the coronavirus "might not come back at all," Trump said multiple times. "And if it does come back, it's not gonna come back — and I've spoken to 10 different people — not gonna be like it was."

The public health officials at the briefing gently contradicted Trump. "We will have coronavirus in the fall, I am convinced of that," Dr. Anthony Fauci said near the end of the briefing, adding, "we will be much, much better prepared" and "whether or not it's going to be big or small depends on our response." Before that, Trump insisted that Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had been "totally misquoted" when he said the outbreak in the fall and winter could be more difficult. When Redfield took the podium two minutes later, he said he was quoted accurately by The Washington Post, though he and Trump quibbled with the article's headline.

"I didn't say that this was going to be worse," Redfield said. "I said it was going to be more difficult and potentially complicated because we'll have flu and coronavirus circulating at the same time." He urged Americans to get flu vaccines.

It's not clear where Trump got the implausible impression COVID-19 would just die out before the election, though he predicted on Feb. 28 that "one day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear." Maybe he thinks that day will come in August. Peter Weber

April 16, 2020

President Trump's proposal, floated Wednesday evening, that he might unilaterally adjourn Congress to force through recess appointments is not only legally questionable, it would be essentially impossible for him to carry out, Politico's Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman report Thursday morning. In theory, Trump has the constitutional right to adjourn Congress if the House and Senate can't agree on when to adjourn, but one reason no president has ever tried to do that is it would be "exceedingly hard," they write, explaining:

To understand the absolute absurdity of Trump's argument, here's what would have to happen: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have to bring the Senate back, and they'd have to vote to adjourn. Speaker Nancy Pelosi would then have to bring the House back, and the House would have to amend the Senate's adjournment resolution — essentially voting against it. Then the Senate would have to disagree to the House's amendment. Only then can Trump adjourn Congress, according to experts. But the odds of that are so infinitesimal they are hardly calculable. [Politico]

And it gets worse for Trump. Pelosi wouldn't have to do a thing to sink the adjournment attempt, and if Trump "were to somehow force adjournment," she could immediately thwart it, "like seconds after it happens," Palmer and Sherman report. Read more about Trump's impossible dream at Politico. Peter Weber

March 6, 2020

The federal deficit has shot up under President Trump, due largely to a $1.5 trillion tax cut and bipartisan spending increases — Trump has insisted on hiking military spending, Democrats pushed to raise domestic programs. And so at a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, Martha McCallum argued that "if you don't cut something in entitlements, you'll never really deal with the debt." "Oh, we'll be cutting," Trump said, but he also promised that, presumably in a second term, the U.S. will see "growth like you never had before."

Entitlements refer to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and Trump has sent mixed signals on whether he wants to cut them. The Trump administration is also asking the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, and one of the town hall participants asked what Trump envisions as a replacement to ObamaCare. Trump wasn't real specific.

'What we'd like to do is totally kill [ObamaCare] but come up, before we do that, with something that's great," Trump said. He claimed that after failing to replace the Affordable Care Act in 2017, he made the choice to manage "the carcass of ObamaCare" rather than sabotage the law, and "we're managing it fantastically." Peter Weber

February 25, 2020

There are now more than 80,000 known cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus worldwide, including at least 35 cases in the U.S., with outbreaks unexpectedly mushrooming in Iran, Italy, and South Korea. President Trump continues to downplay concerns about "the still-mysterious coronavirus — which is hard to detect, poses high risk to the elderly, and may in some cases be transmitted by people who show no symptoms," The Washington Post reports, concerned that fears about the virus could further spook the stock market, which had its worst day in two years on Monday, and harm his re-election prospects.

"The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA," Trump tweeted from India on Monday evening. "We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!" On Tuesday, Trump told reporters in New Delhi that the coronavirus "is very well under control" in the U.S., said researchers are "close" to a developing a vaccine (which won't be available until 2021, at least), and said he believes the the coronavirus is "a problem that's going to go away."

Trump's advisers are aware of the political and economic risks the coronavirus poses, but they are also downplaying them in public. "It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show Monday. "The coronavirus is the common cold, folks." (It isn't.) Informal Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore told Politico that "the view in the White House is that this is one of those classic black swan events." That drew an exasperated response from Week contributor James Pethokoukis.

Trump has "hollowed out the senior leadership of so many departments of the government — especially in the scientific community," University of Virginia presidential historian Russell Riley tells the Post, "If the markets continue to drop and the medical news gets very bad, then this president is singularly ill-prepared to deal with it in a rational manner." Peter Weber

February 5, 2020

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) just articulated one of the main rationales certain Republican senators are giving for not voting to impeach President Trump for what they agree are his misdeeds regarding Ukraine and Joe Biden. "I believe that the president has learned from this case," Collins told CBS News anchor Norah O'Donnell on Tuesday. "The president has been impeached. That's a pretty big lesson. ... I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future."

"The president's call was wrong," Collins added. "The president of the United States should not be asking a foreign country to investigate a political rival. That is just improper. It was far from a perfect call."

Trump, it appears, disagrees with Collins. "It was a perfect call," Trump told O'Donnell and other TV news anchors during a two-hour lunch ahead of his State of the Union address, according to The Washington Post. He again insisted he did nothing wrong. The lunch was off-the-record for journalists who attended — nobody from the Post was there, and CNN was pointedly not invited — but Trump's lack of contrition over impeachment matches other reporting and Trump's frequent public statements.

Trump also mocked his former national security adviser John Bolton during the lunch, saying he wants the White House to block publication of Bolton's forthcoming book and jabbing Bolton for always insisting on being referred to as "ambassador," despite earning the title during a brief, non-Senate-confirmed tenure as United Nations ambassador under President George W. Bush, the Post and CNN report. Trump discussed his potential Democratic rivals, reportedly calling Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) "nasty" and fixating on former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

The White House declined invitations to respond to the reports. "I'm not going to comment on an off-the-record lunch because I actually have ethics," said White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham. Peter Weber

January 28, 2020

President Trump is scheduled to unveil his administration's long-awaited Middle East peace plan at noon Tuesday at the White House, accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is widespread skepticism about the viability of the secret plan, three years in the making, because it is expected to be very favorable to Israel and Palestinians have rejected it out of hand. "It's been worked on by everybody, and we'll see whether or not it catches hold," Trump said Monday, alongside Netanyahu. "If it does, that would be great, and if it doesn't, we can live with it, too. But I think it might have a chance."

The Israeli news media have speculated that Trump's plan will endorse Israel's annexation of large portions of occupied territory that Palestinians would expect for an independent state, all but ending the broad international consensus that a two-state solution is the only workable end goal of Israeli-Palestinian talks. But "Trump has spent three years accruing political capital" with Netanyahu, Jonathan Swan speculates at Axios, and "if he offers the Palestinians their own state," it's "hard to imagine Netanyahu defying him even if he faces internal pressure" from his conservative nationalist base.

Whatever the details, the rollout of the plan will be a welcome distraction for Trump, whose ongoing Senate impeachment trial has been upended by leaked manuscript excerpts from former National Security Adviser John Bolton's forthcoming book, and for Netanyahu. Israeli prosecutors formally indicted Netanyahu early Tuesday on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases, hours after Netanyahu withdrew a petition for immunity from prosecution to be debated in Israel's Knesset, or parliament. He was expected to lose the vote, dealing him a political blow as he faces Israel's third election in a year on March 2. Peter Weber

June 26, 2019

There has been speculation that a recent series of letters between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — Trump called Kim's "beautiful" while Kim dubbed Trump's "excellent" — might lead to a third summit between the two leaders, after the second summit ended in February with no progress on denuclearization. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that in fact U.S. and North Korean officials are holding "behind-the-scenes talks" to arrange a third summit, in an unspecified time and place. He didn't say if the talks were face-to-face or who participated.

"There's no reason to regard the current situation as a stalemate in the peace process on the peninsula just because the pace has remained slow," Moon wrote in response to questions from seven news organizations, including The Associated Press. "Complete denuclearization and a permanent peace regime on the peninsula are tasks that cannot be achieved overnight." Trump is traveling to Japan for a G20 summit on Friday, before heading to South Korea to meet with Moon, and "he is reportedly considering a visit to the demilitarized zone that divides the two Korea," CNN reports, citing a South Korean government official.

Earlier Wednesday, North Korea's foreign ministry slammed the U.S. for having "viciously slandered" Pyongyang by suggesting its sanctions will "bring us to our knees." The foreign ministry's statement criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but not Trump, even referring to the president "as the 'supreme leader' of the United States," mirroring Kim's title in North Korea, CNN notes.

The foreign ministry is trying to distinguish the Kim-Trump "bromance from the relationship between their two countries," Duyeon Kim, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, suggested to CNN. "It sounds like they're sending a warning to Washington, almost as if to manage expectations ahead of a third summit, while making an appeal to Trump to basically put a straitjacket on his staff." Peter Weber

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