In the aftermath of ridicule and alarm over President Donald Trump’s comments about the use of disinfectants to perhaps clean out the coronavirus from the human body, the White House first claimed on Friday that the comments were taken out of context.
“Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines,” said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEneny.
Then, just hours later, Trump had a new walk back. “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” he said to a pool gathered at a White House meeting.
The problem is his comments, made during his nightly briefing on Thursday, certainly were not interpreted as sarcastic. They also beg the question of why, in the midst of a pandemic, when the stakes are so much, much higher, the president would be using the press conference to joke or riff so casually about potential treatments.
On Fox News, anchor Bret Baier told viewers that “it didn’t seem like he was being sarcastic when he was talking,” while on CNN, anchor Anderson Cooper said, “Now he’s in like, Soviet fashion, trying to rewrite what we all know and saw as though we are morons.”
Trump, perhaps more than any other world leader, knows how his comments and statements are picked up by the media and then take on a life of their own. He himself has perfected the art of injecting (to use that word) new storylines into the media ecosystem.
And angling, as many are, for a quick cure for the coronavirus, Trump already has a record of promoting the use of unproven treatments that actually may pose other dangers to patients.
Here’s how it all went down on Thursday. After a presentation from an official from the Department of Homeland Security, William Bryan, the president was clearly intrigued by the idea that the coronavirus would be eradicated much quickly in sunlight, or UV rays.
So he took that a step further.
At the briefing, Trump said that he asked Bryan a question that he thought was “very interesting.”
“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too. It sounds interesting.”
He continued, “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And 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. So it would be interesting to check that. So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.”
As he was making his remarks, he looked over at Bryan and Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of his task force, as if posing his suggestions to them.
The White House’s out-of-context argument appears to be that Trump is suggesting a test of whether this approach works — not that he is recommending its use right now.
Breitbart.com, the rightward site that has been one of Trump’s media defenders, took it upon themselves to try to clarify what he meant. They quickly posted a story deeming reports “false” that the president was recommending the use of disinfectant.
“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,” the site’s Joel Pollak wrote.
Later at the briefing, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jon Karl asked Bryan, “the president mentioned the idea of cleaners, like bleach and isopropyl alcohol you mentioned. There’s no scenario that that could be injected into a person, is there?”
Bryan responded, “No, I’m here to talk about the findings that we had in the study. We won’t do that within that lab and our lab.”
Trump also seemed to backtrack on the use of the word “injection.”
“It wouldn’t be through injection,” Trump said. “We’re talking about through almost a cleaning, sterilization of an area. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work. But it certainly has a big effect if it’s on a stationary object.”
Even so, even in those later remarks, Trump still was advancing the idea of a “cleaning, sterilization of an area,” even if it is not entirely clear whether he meant internally or externally.
He also didn’t try to clarify that he was being sarcastic in his initial comments, which clearly mention “injection inside” and “almost a cleaning.” His remarks quickly spread virally and dominated coverage on cable news for much of the evening.
By Friday morning, a number of medical professionals were still dumbfounded at the crazy idea of even suggesting the ingestion of a disinfectant as a treatment — as even small doses can kill. Most household products are labeled with those warnings. Lysol and the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance warning against it.
On Fox News’ America’s Newsroom on Friday, anchor Sandra Smith asked Dr. Marc Siegel what he thought of the suggestion of using disinfectant.
“I think that the President is not a physician,” Siegel said. “And I think the point here is that this virus is easily disinfected on surfaces. It’s killed by soap and water if you actually wash your hands properly and wash your face properly. There’s no evidence that ingesting anything into your body is going to deal with it and I’ll tell you why. Once the virus is in the cells, it’s spreading from cell to cell. You’re not going to be able to kill it that way.
He added, “The real way to fight a virus off is to be in good health, to sleep well, to eat well, to exercise. A lot of that stuff we’re having trouble doing right now because we’re under such stress. But no, there’s not a disinfectant you can introduce into the body to fight this. By the time the virus gets in, it’s already beyond that.”
Reporters at the briefing already had been asking Trump about his promotion of the use of hydrochloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. And his comments appear to have had an impact, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of his coronavirus task force, warned that the drug still required a clinical trial.
On Friday, the FDA, citing the increased use of the drug via outpatient prescriptions, warned that it should only be used in hospital settings or in trials as a treatment for the virus. They warned of the risk of heart rhythm problems.
The problem is that, in contrast to an off-hand comment Trump may make about a political opponent or a rant about Nancy Pelosi, he’s dealing with a whole other level of critical medical information that is outside his area of expertise. The stakes are just higher, but Trump continues to riff on just about any topic at the nightly briefings.
Paul Levinson, professor of communication at Fordham University, said via email that “it doesn’t matter if Trump’s disinfectant advice was taken in or out of context.
“First of all, not everyone watches the entire or even a big part of his press conferences,” Levinson wrote. “Some people, even many people, may tune in and just hear Trump say we should get disinfectant inside our bodies. That’s all they hear, and that’s terribly dangerous advice.”
He added, “In general, a rule of thumb in communicating about serious subjects is try to never say anything that can be misunderstood. The more serious the topic, the more crucial that is. When it comes to this deadly pandemic, there’s nothing more serious these days on the face of the Earth.”