For once, President Donald Trump’s latest tossed-out suggestion for a way to combat coronavirus — injecting ultraviolet rays — did not originate from a Fox News guest, a viral Twitter thread or an article on a conservative website.
Instead, the process worked in reverse. First, Trump offered a muddled but hopeful theory — that one could somehow insert light or medicine into the lungs — and conservative and Trump-friendly media outlets started trying to explain and boost it. They flagged obscure research papers and said the president was simply attempting to raise the country’s spirits. They tried to discredit mainstream media coverage of the comments.
“Trump used the word ‘inject’ but what he meant was using a process — which he left ‘medical doctors’ to define — in which patients’ lungs might be cleared of the virus, given new knowledge about its response to light and other factors,” wrote Joel Pollak in an article posted on Breitbart hours after Trump made his remarks.
It’s the latest example of the symbiotic relationship between the president and his media boosters during the coronavirus. At times, conservative outlets have promoted ideas, such as the possibility that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine might help cure the disease, that Trump has then adopted. Other times, Trump throws out his own theories, and conservative outlets swiftly parrot them and defend the president.
The process has played out over the past several weeks, as Trump’s ad hoc attempt at promoting potential coronavirus cures has pivoted from a prediction that summertime temperatures might help eradicate the disease, to the hydroxychloroquine saga to the latest — ultraviolet light therapy.
The process started Thursday night when Trump offered his own take on a presentation explaining that a spectrum of ultraviolet rays could reduce the half-life of the coronavirus while airborne or on hard surfaces.
“Supposing you brought the light inside of the body, which you could do either through the skin or in some other way?” Trump asked the official giving the presentation. “Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.”
The medical community was quick to offer an answer: You can’t do that. UV lights would destroy human tissue.
“[We’re] talking about light waves at low wavelengths that contain a lot of energy and that energy has been shown in many studies to be extremely damaging to human tissues in particular the skin and the eyes,” Jim Malley, an expert on UV light and a professor at the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement.
As the media started picking up on Trump’s remarks, conservative voices started explaining and boosting Trump’s intent.
In addition to the Breitbart article, other Trump-supporting personalities like Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams started elevating articles about dubious technologies and news releases about inventions that had yet to be backed by research.
Adams and several other right-wing personalities floated the possibility that Trump had read a news release from Aytu Bioscience, a publicly traded biotech company based out of Colorado, announcing a partnership with Cedars-Sinai, a top medical research center, to work on a therapy that involved treating coronavirus patients via injecting UV-A rays, a subspectrum of ultraviolet light, into the lungs via a catheter tube.
The news release was packed with extensive legal disclaimers cautioning that any forward-looking statements indicating excitement were “just predictions and are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause the actual events or results to differ materially.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Cedars-Sinai said the technology was in the preclinical phase: “The technology has not been tested or used on patients.”
The Food and Drug Administration declined to comment about the company or the technology.
Others insisted the president was merely trying to provide hope to Americans, even with his impulsive suggestions.
“The majority of MAGA knows he is talking about hopes for new treatments for the virus. I’m not a doctor myself so the only thing I self-medicate with is memes,” said Jack Posobiec, a correspondent with OANN, a conservative network that Trump frequently praises.
Jim Hanson, a Trump-friendly commentator and the president of the right-wing think tank Security Studies Group, said that Trump’s observers across the political spectrum are constantly engaged in this type of Trump kremlinology.
“He's going to say some things that are a little bit off the cuff, you know, or beyond the cuff,” Hanson said. “So I'd think people try to figure it out and cover for him and say, well this is what he may have met. This is what he may be trying to say.”
The president's medical advisers expressed a desire for the media to spend less time dissecting the president's extemporaneous remarks.
“It bothers me that this is still in the news cycle, because I think we’re missing the bigger pieces of what we need to be doing as an American people to continue to protect one another,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, a global health expert and one of the leading medical voices on the White House coronavirus task force, in a CNN interview on Sunday. “As a scientist and a public health official and a researcher, sometimes I worry that we don’t get the information to the American people that they need when we continue to bring up something that was from Thursday night.”
Hanson defended the president’s right to offer such free-wheeling assessments from the White House podium.
“The idea of him up front on live TV spitballing ideas, taking pot shots at people and making sure that nobody feels too comfortable in a situation where everybody needs to be on their a game, is a leadership style that I have seen be very effective in crisis,” he said.
True to form, Trump forced everyone to pivot again on Friday when he offered his own explanation: He had meant his remarks sarcastically.
“I was asking a sarcastic, and a very sarcastic question, to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside,” Trump said during a news conference in the Oval Office the next day. “But it does kill it.”
Breitbart soon edited Pollack’s piece to clarify that it was now “opinion,” adding that it had been “further updated to reflect President Trump’s statement this morning that he was being sarcastic. We apologize for the error, and you are welcome for all the opportunities to dunk on us on Twitter.”
It’s nearly the exact opposite phenomenon of what happened with Trump and his base’s brief flirtation with hydroxychloroquine. That saga began when a fringe bitcoin investor posed as a Stanford researcher, promoted the anti-malarial drug as a potential game-changer by citing several flawed early-stage studies and then hyped the drug on several right-wing media outlets.
Trump was soon touting the drug himself from the White House podium, encouraging people to take it and even calling it “the hydroxy” during appearances. “If it were me, in fact, I might do it anyway,” he told reporters on April 11. “I may take it. … I have to ask my doctors about that. But I may take it.”
In turn, many conservative pundits stumped for hydroxychloroquine, causing a massive surge in demand that created shortages for those who were prescribed the drug for ailments like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Then, in recent days, some signs have emerged that hydroxychloroquine carries serious potential side effects in coronavirus patients and may not be effective fighting the disease.
A National Institutes of Health-backed study showed that coronavirus patients treated with hydroxychloroquine died at a higher rate than those who did not receive the drug. Two separate studies conducted in Brazil and France were abruptly halted when researchers began observing an increase in heart problems among subjects receiving a higher dose of chloroquine.
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration officially cautioned doctors from using hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine in treating patients outside hospitals or clinical settings, citing the increased cardiac risks. “[W]e would like to remind health care professionals and patients of the known risks associated with both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine,” the agency said.
Amid these developments, Trump has quietly backed down from his hydroxychloroquine endorsement. He last mentioned it during a news briefing last week.
To his followers, the back-and-forth is simply another of Trump’s virtues.
“That's his style. He's been that way forever. And a lot of people hate it,” said Hanson. “OK. I get that. It's not the old-school presidential style, but it's him, and I think the idea that a bunch of people are confused and think Trump's a doctor or a scientist, and the pronouncements that come out of his mouth are prescriptions that they should follow, is absurd.”
CORRECTION: Joel Pollak’s name was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.