COMMENTARY: Trump Lost The Election One Year Ago Today
One year ago today Donald Trump stood at the lectern in the James Brady White House briefing room and suggested to the American public that injecting bleach into the human body or exposing it to a “very powerful light” could be effective in combating the coronavirus. That reckless, uninformed and unscripted comment from the president of the United States spurred thousands of Americans to ingest household disinfectants. It also likely changed the course of political history.
“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it,” Trump said. “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. 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.”
At the time Trump delivered that commentary, 50,000 Americans had died from COVID-19. Today the death toll stands at more than 570,000, a previously unimaginable ten-fold increase. His musings also are emblematic of the feeble and uncoordinated response of his administration to the pandemic at a time when he was privately admitting to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that he understood how contagious and deadly the virus was.
A former Trump aide told Politico that Trump had been briefed about the possible effects of light and humidity on the virus before his appearance in the briefing room but never did accurately process what he had been told. Some argued that Trump should not go before the press that day. “A few of us actually tried to stop it in the West Wing hallway,” the aide said. Immediately after his cringe-worthy performance Trump’s job approval poll numbers plummeted as the pace of COVID-19 deaths accelerated and the American public began to recognize the woeful nature of his administration’s inaction.
Trump and his team of spin doctors tried to claim that he was simply being sarcastic as he addressed coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx, who was seated off to the side. Those comments became fodder for running jokes within his administration.
“People joked about it inside the White House like, ‘Are you drinking bleach and injecting sunlight?’ People were mocking it and saying, ‘Oh let me go stand out in the sun, and I’ll be safe from Covid,” one former Trump administration official told Politico. “It honestly hurt. It was a credibility issue. … It was hurting us even from an international standpoint, the credibility at the White House.”
The bleach press conference quickly became a boon for supporters of Joe Biden, who began putting up yard signs declaring “He Won’t Put Bleach in You.” “Even for him,” said one former Biden campaign aide, “this was stratospherically insane and dangerous. It cemented the case we had been making about his derelict COVID response.”“
A year later, the episode still is considered the defining point in the battle against the pandemic. That one minute of Trump rambling to Birx about about powerful lights and injecting the body with household disinfectants is when he lost any shot he had of reelection.
“Undoubtedly [it was] a seminal moment in presidential communications, and while it is easy to laugh it off, I hope it educates leaders and communicators for decades,” said former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “But this was the moment where we knew without any doubt that the government was in way over its head, and its ability to both respond effectively and educate Americans about what to do was not going to be anywhere close to meeting the moment.”