Trump said during a Fox News “virtual town hall” event at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday night that the final US total could be as high as 100,000 deaths. At a press briefing on April 20, conversely, he predicted a total between 50,000 and 60,000.
It’s difficult even for experts to predict the death toll from a pandemic; statistical models produce new forecasts as new information comes in. (The people behind one prominent University of Washington model announced Monday that they were adjusting their modeling strategy and that their estimated death toll would be revised upward to about 135,000 deaths from a previous estimate of 72,433.) Still, the regular increases in the President’s own estimate — even as he and his aides continue to tout their response as a success — are noteworthy.
A more conventional president might avoid making any estimate to avoid future criticism if they turned out to be wrong. Trump, who often seems more concerned with shaping perceptions in the current moment than with how something might be perceived in the future, instead keeps offering projections that seem unrealistically low from the moment he utters them.
Trump claimed in March that his previous rosy rhetoric was an attempt to “give people hope.” Whatever his intentions, he has been reliably incorrect.
Trump has been issuing lowball estimates since February, the month he declared that the number of people in the US known to have the virus, then 15, was going to be “close to 0” within days. He said then that the reduction from 15 to 0 would show how good a job his team had done.
Similarly, his argument in April and May has been that the final total would have been far higher — far higher than whatever his latest estimate is — had his administration not taken the steps it did. He has pointed to Dr. Deborah Birx’s March 31 statement that expert analysis showed 2.2 million could die if there were no “mitigation” efforts and that at least 100,000 were likely to die even with good mitigation.
Here’s a timeline of Trump’s death toll estimates since April 10 — and the real death toll as of the end of each day he offered these predictions. All of the real death toll figures below are from Johns Hopkins University data; the university’s figures may not capture all actual coronavirus deaths, since it is hard to count all of them in real time.