A metrics-obsessed White House struggles to define success on coronavirus

Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman

President Donald Trump stepped into the Rose Garden for a news conference Monday and stood between two enormous signs that graced the West Wing colonnade.

“AMERICA LEADS THE WORLD IN TESTING,” the signs read.

While that’s not accurate — on a per capita basis, the United States ranks 26th in testing — the public relations push on coronavirus testing highlights one of the White House’s greatest vulnerabilities: a president who is obsessed with metrics and numerical indications of success has few good numbers to point to.

Presidential reelection campaigns are generally referendums on the incumbent. A falling unemployment rate and rising stock market were once Trump’s measures of success. But after a manic 3½ years, the referendum on Trump may come down to the single issue of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, in a White House once obsessed with statistical boasts, those close to the president are loath to set any milestones defining a positive outcome.

By far the most sensitive subject is the awful reality of the growing death count. “I’m not going to play that game,” said one White House official when asked if there is a number of dead Americans beyond what the public would tolerate. “I think all these body count things are somewhat gross and the definitions are kind of fu--ed up and they’re not uniform across states and across countries.”

But even beyond the death count, there’s a widespread reluctance to define what success means. “I’m not going to get into this game four or five months from now about what any particular metric needs to look like,” the official said.

Some Trump allies on the outside see a White House that doesn’t understand the enormity of the coronavirus catastrophe and hasn’t been able to focus on getting the response right.

Trump has repeatedly compared his pandemic response to fighting a war. “So it is a war and I define victory when it’s gone and we open successfully and we have a successful country again,” he said on May 1. “It can never be a total victory because too many people have died.”

When American war deaths in Vietnam spiked in 1967 and early 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he wouldn’t seek a second term. When the Iraq War spun out of control in George W. Bush’s second term, his presidency collapsed. Similarly, there is now a grim conversation quietly happening in Republican circles about the Covid-19 death count, with some saying that if there are 250,000 people dead by Election Day, it will be hard for Trump to win reelection.

Others are slightly more optimistic that the overall number of deaths is less important than the trajectory of new cases and whether there are signs of an economic rebound. “Allowing people to get to some semblance of normal without a second wave occurring and the economy showing glimmers of hope would be a success,” argued one Republican close to the president.

But, he added, “If things don’t look like they’re bouncing back by September, I think that’s going to be a problem.”

The fear that Trump can’t survive a referendum on his handling of the crisis has allies pushing a series of change-the-subject strategies. The more the pandemic response becomes a polarized issue, the more that political narrative rather than raw statistics could matter.

When asked about what constitutes success, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, echoed Trump’s statement earlier this month mourning the many people who have died. At the same time, she noted in an interview the “economic and emotional boosts for Americans to have local establishments reopen and live professional sports restart following a horrific two months.”

A spokesperson for Anthony Fauci declined to comment on what metrics Fauci would consider a success in beating back the pandemic by November.

Others are trying to sow doubts about the death statistics, which the president has also done. (At the Monday news conference Trump argued that mass quarantine could be killing more people through things like elevated drug use and suicides than the coronavirus.)

“We’re a country of 330 million people,” said a person close to the president when asked about the climbing death toll. “But how many people die from the strain A of the flu every year? How many people die from strain B? Are we counting the deaths accurately? Just because you had corona in your system doesn’t mean that was the reason you died.” (Covid-19 has killed more people in a few months than the flu is estimated to have killed during the October to April season, and on some days Covid-19 surpasses heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in America.)

Then there’s the China strategy. The worse the pandemic becomes in America, the more Trump and his Republican allies will point to China as the real culprit. “He will continuously harp on that the Chinese government and the World Health Organization failed not only the United States but the world and to make sure that China pays a price for their recalcitrance, for their stubbornness for what they did to the world in allowing this to happen,” said a Republican close to the White House.

“More Americans are focused on China than ever before,” added Conway. “President Trump has been tough on China, from negotiating a pro-America trade and technology deal with them, to openly questioning their transparency about the coronavirus. Contrast that with Joe Biden, who was soft on China and complicit in the theft of American jobs and wealth that happened over the decades Biden has been swimming in the swamp.”

On Capitol Hill, there’s more interest among Republicans in defeating the pandemic than trying to find clever political narratives to explain any Trump failures.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he also sees fighting the pandemic as analogous to a war and has been thinking about what success would look like. He was even willing to offer a number of total deaths below which success might be measured.

“The closer you can have it to 120 [thousand deaths], I think you can say you limited the casualties in this war,” Graham said.

Graham understands Trump better than most, and he made a point of raising the president’s anti-China talking points.

“When I talk with the president, the first conversation is always about that decision with China [to curb travel] and about the numbers of lives saved,” he said. “He constantly talks about the number of people who could have died. I think that stuck with him really hard. ... You can see through his public discussions and privately that he’s increasingly upset that China put the world in this spot and I think a strong response towards China will inure to Trump’s benefit.”

But Graham was clear, in a way that many Trump political advisers aren’t, that China-bashing is not a substitute for a strategy to defeat the coronavirus in the United States.

“I reject the argument that some are making on the right and left, but it’s mostly from the right, that we’ve overreacted,” he said. “I don’t believe that. If we had not engaged in this strong mitigation, social distancing and all the economic upheaval that has come from that, then the death toll would be in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.”

He has been telling Trump that there are four crucial metrics that must be met by November: having therapies in place that successfully treat those afflicted with Covid-19 (“take it from a level 10 effect on the body to a level 2 or 3”); a buildup of personal protective equipment so there won’t be shortages if the virus spikes in the fall; an economy that “is showing life”; and that “a vaccine is on the horizon.”

Ali Khan, a former senior official for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argued one metric of success in November might be defined as “a few hundred cases a day at most in the U.S.”

The question is whether anything will matter aside from the overall death count.

“We are now at almost 85,000 deaths and we are not at the peak,” said Zeke Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to Joe Biden. “If you take out New York, the number of cases are still actually going up. And this reopening isn’t helping things.”

He added, “We are going to be at 200,000 deaths. People are still dropping like flies.”