WASHINGTON — Sure, Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka and Trump Deodorant were all flops, but Trump Coronavirus Cure — whether the drugs the president is pushing wind up working or not — could very well help win him reelection in November.
With hundreds of thousands of Americans suffering from the deadly virus and desperate for a cure, President Donald Trump has positioned himself to claim credit for every single person who uses the drugs and recovers, regardless of whether the medicines helped get them better.
“His fixation is due to his only interest: himself and getting himself reelected. He’s got to control the narrative. Fooling people into thinking he’s responsible for the ‘cure’ gives him a narrative,” said former congressman Joe Walsh, who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the 2020 presidential nomination. “He’s lost the economy, he can’t control the deaths, he knows he botched our response, so he will glom onto ‘miracle cures’ to help save his ass.”
Yet a Michigan lawmaker’s recovery from coronavirus offers a case study in how that approach could work for Trump. She attributed her improvement to medicine she said she would not have taken had it not been for Trump, according to a news article. Trump then promoted that to his 76 million Twitter followers Monday afternoon. “Congratulations to State Representative Karen Whitsett of Michigan. So glad you are getting better,” he wrote.
Trump embellished on the story at Tuesday’s White House briefing as he again pushed the drugs. “This is a woman who thought she was going to die,” he said. “I think she’ll be voting for me now, even though she’s a Democratic representative.”
Trump has been enthusiastically pushing hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a “game changer” in the pandemic since March 19, despite little clinical proof that they work against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and plenty of caution from doctors who specialize in infectious diseases.
The rationales of saving lives or acting for the public good don’t enter into his thinking.
New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Trump’s boosterism for the therapy quickly turned it into another front in his culture war against the “elites” who challenge his often fact-free assertions about the world around him. His devoted followers — who only recently switched from repeating his claims that the disease was no worse than the seasonal flu to accepting that it is a dangerous illness — have bought into its efficacy wholeheartedly, on Fox News and across talk radio.
At Trump’s insistence, many in his executive branch are treating the hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin therapy as a de facto cure.
“We are working the distribution there to push the same thing to the same impacted areas, working to get it into hospitals and to every pharmacy,” Navy Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, who is handling logistics for the White House coronavirus task force, said at Monday’s briefing.
The president’s support for the drugs has, unsurprisingly, made many who come down with COVID-19 insist on taking them, particularly after hearing that one has been used to treat malaria for many decades and the other is a common antibiotic. That in turn has pushed other public officials, including Democratic governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, into embracing the “what harm can it do” approach.
Howard Forman, a physician and professor of public health at Yale University, said he remembers when drugs such as Thalidomide, Vioxx, Laetrile and AZT, all hailed as effective medicines, were abandoned because they didn’t work or, worse, because of their deadly side effects.
“There are reasons we want to be avoiding these things,” he said about untested therapies, but added that having Trump offer medical advice of any kind is bad for the country. “The precedent that it sets, for the president of the United States, who is not a subject matter expert, nor a physician, is just dangerous from a public policy point of view … He’s become the principal monarch over the death of expertise.”
Expert advice notwithstanding, Trump supporters continue to push the two drugs even as large-scale clinical trials continue.
Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon and Fox News contributor who has become one of the more listened-to voices inside the White House of late, explained in a video posted to Twitter that the controversial French doctor who initially championed the therapy would have new, encouraging data soon showing that only a tiny percentage of patients suffering mild cases of the disease who take the medicines wind up in intensive care with breathing difficulties.
He said the reason the virus is so lethal is that human bodies “overreact” to it, causing inflammation in the lungs, rather than a toxicity in the virus itself. That was why, Oz said, it was critical for patients to start the drugs when the infection is still mild.
Actual infectious disease specialists, though, are far less sanguine about Trump’s favored protocol.
Anthony Fauci, who has headed the infectious disease program at the National Institutes for Health for years, has notably declined to endorse the drugs, even as he shares a podium with Trump at White House briefings. “No. The answer is no,” he said when asked if there was proof hydroxychloroquine works against COVID-19.
Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician and an Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the French study Trump’s supporters are relying on is rife with methodological problems.
“We have a hypothesis of how azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine work but nothing that has been proved for this virus,” she said, adding that the medications are not benign and that patients have to be monitored for drug interactions.
Further, having many tens of millions of people around the world taking a broad-spectrum antibiotic like azithromycin would lessen its effectiveness against bacteria. “It is currently used to treat a variety of diseases and unnecessary use could lead to drug resistance, which is already a problem,” Kuppalli said.
Such doubts, though, do not appear to matter to Trump. While he has conceded that he is not an expert — “What do I know? I’m not a doctor,” he said Sunday — he has nevertheless aggressively pushed the drugs and stifled dissent. When a journalist specifically asked Fauci to address a question about the drugs, Trump interjected and refused to let him do so. Last month, when he was asked if continually touting the untested drugs was not offering a “false sense of hope,” Trump lashed out at his questioner.
“You’re a terrible reporter,” he said.
Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican political consultant and a top aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the drugs may or may not work against COVID-19, but either way, Trump was cementing the party’s new image. “The big picture is that what has happened is just an extension of the anti-science, ‘stupid party’ trend of Republicans,” he said.
Likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign said it would be guided by the public health professionals. “Vice President Biden believes this is a decision that should be guided by science and made by the relevant professionals, a point he has regularly made in recent months,” campaign press secretary TJ Ducklo said. “This is not a place for politics. Lives are at risk.”
And Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor who has long warned of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, said his advocacy of hydroxychloroquine is more proof of his willingness to help his friends and donors who manufacture the drug while building himself up as the people’s only savior.
“It is hard to accept that we have a president who truly does not care if we live or die, especially at such a tragic moment in our history, but the sooner we recognize this the better off we will be,” she said. “The rationales of saving lives or acting for the public good don’t enter into his thinking.”
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