Even after all this time, President Donald Trump's ability to treat points of fact as matters of opinion is astonishing. In his world, climate change is a hoax and systemic racism is a myth. But nothing quite compares to his breathtaking dismissal of the dangers of the novel coronavirus.
No reasonable person would have wished him to contract COVID-19 — and all Americans should be glad he is recovering — but it was reasonable to hope that his illness would become a teachable moment from which he and the nation might benefit. As we naively observed on these pages on Sunday, "The chief denier of the need to take the virus seriously can deny it no more."
But deny it he does, with gusto. Where a humbler person would have been chastened by his experience with the virus, Trump appears galvanized. Even as his own White House joined the list of coronavirus hot spots, the likely still-contagious president returned to the White House from the hospital Monday, strode out onto the balcony and pointedly removed his mask.
"Maybe I'm immune, I don't know," he said in a short video he released soon after. And he repeated the advice he had given earlier in the day about COVID-19: "One thing that's for certain: Don't let it dominate you. Don't be afraid of it. You're gonna beat it."
Imagine how that advice sounds to the families of the 210,000 Americans who have died so far in this pandemic. Is Trump suggesting that the dead are to blame, that they somehow allowed the virus to "dominate" them? And does he suppose that the kind of top-notch medical care he has enjoyed is available to ordinary people?
Trump's physician, Dr. Sean Conley, has tried to appear unperturbed by his patient's willful disregard of safety protocols. He defended Trump's indefensible SUV ride around the hospital on Sunday: The president's ride was brief, he said, and the Secret Service agents with him were wearing protective equipment.
"The president has been a phenomenal patient during his stay here," Conley said. "He has never once pushed us to do anything that was beyond safe and reasonable practice."
But even Conley appears to have his limits. A reporter asked whether he agreed with the president's assertion that Americans should not be afraid of the virus. The doctor replied, "I'm not going to get into what the president says."
Presumably Conley was following orders when he dodged media inquiries with evasion and obfuscation in recent days. As Trump's physician, he has a legitimate interest in protecting some of his patient's sensitive information.
But the date of the president's last negative coronavirus test, to name one example, is a matter of intense public concern given the large numbers of people who came into contact with Trump when he might have been at his most contagious. Neither Conley nor Trump should expect to keep it private.
Trump has signaled that he intends to use his illness as a credential. In his videos, he said he had learned a lot about the coronavirus, "or whatever you want to call it." He said he had been to "the real school. This isn't the let's-read-the-books school."
"I get it," he said.
No, he doesn't. If he got it, he would show compassion and a little empathy to those who are truly suffering during the pandemic. If he got it, he would not compare COVID-19 to the flu. If he got it, he would order that the FDA be left alone to enforce vaccine safety and effectiveness as it sees fit.
Instead, Trump is using his purported newfound expertise to suggest that he was right all along. The president may be too preoccupied to notice, but the pandemic's numbers are headed in the wrong direction. Observers are warning of a possible new surge of cases as colder weather sets in.
The president sets the tone and policy with which the nation responds to this pandemic. Under his watch, the tone has been acrimonious and the policy counterproductive. Trump has squandered an opportunity to begin easing America's crisis, and winter is coming.