Trump's tendency to deny his past statements has become more glaring during coronavirus

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump has for years been called out for denying his past statements or changing the meaning of his words after the fact.
  • Trump walked back two major claims about the U.S. response to coronavirus in the past week alone.
  • As he seizes more and more control over the White House's efforts to combat Covid-19, Trump's rhetorical approach could carry more serious consequences.
President Donald Trump answers questions at the daily coronavirus task force briefing flanked by Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington, April 17, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

It's a well-documented move: President Donald Trump says one thing, and then later on — sometimes after a few hours, sometimes after years — he denies he ever said it or suggests that his original quote is not what it appears to be.

But as he has seized more and more of the spotlight during the country's response to the coronavirus, Trump's malleable approach to his own record could carry more serious consequences.

Two recent examples came within the past week.

At a White House press briefing on the virus April 23, Trump speculated about whether ingesting disinfectants could work as a treatment for Covid-19.

"I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute. One minute," Trump said. "Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that."

The president's comments sparked fierce pushback from health experts and prompted the maker of household cleaner Lysol to issue a statement warning people not to consume or inject disinfectants.

The following day, Trump tried to walk back his remarks, saying he was just being sarcastic.

"I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen," Trump said Friday. He added that it was a "very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside." When he made the original remarks, however, there was no indication he was being sarcastic.

The White House said in a statement earlier that day that he had "repeatedly said" Americans should consult their doctors about coronavirus treatment. That statement accused journalists of taking the president's comments out of context.

Pres. Trump's suggests possibility of using ultraviolet light, household disinfectants to treat Covid-19
Pres. Trump's suggests studying UV light, disinfectants to treat Covid-19

On Tuesday, Trump made a bold new claim about the government's ongoing efforts to ramp up coronavirus testing — a key component of White House economic reopening guidelines.

Asked by a reporter whether the U.S. can reach a benchmark of 5 million tests per day, as some health experts recommend — leaps and bounds above the current testing rate — Trump responded, "We'll increase it, and it'll increase it by much more than that in the very near future."

"When tens of millions of families are having difficulty and experiencing personal pain, you can't tell them the sky is blue when it's green."
William Galston
Senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution

When the reporter followed up to clarify that Trump was confident the U.S. can soon surpass 5 million tests daily, Trump again said that he was: "We're going to be there very soon. If you look at the numbers, it could be that we're getting very close."

The U.S. is nowhere close to testing that many people each day. Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health who is in charge of the government's testing response, said as much in a Time interview published Tuesday evening.

"There is absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even 5 million tests a day," Giroir said in the interview, which was actually conducted before Trump's remarks that day.

On Wednesday, Trump denied saying there will be 5 million tests a day — but then added that he believes the U.S. will reach that figure.

"Somebody came out with a study of 5 million people. Do I think we will? I think we will, but I never said it," Trump claimed during an event at the White House on Wednesday. "Somebody started throwing around 5 million. I didn't say 5 million," the president said, adding, "We will be there. But I didn't say it. I didn't say it."

While Trump himself did not use the words "5 million" on Tuesday, he did, in fact, say that the U.S. would surpass that number of tests "in the very near future."

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not comment at the time on whether the U.S. would soon be able to run 5 million tests a day, but noted in a statement that "the United States has done double the number of tests of any country in the world."

Trump: U.S. coronavirus testing will go up 'exponentially'
Trump: U.S. coronavirus testing will go up 'exponentially'

The White House did not immediately respond when CNBC reached out for comment about the president's remarks.

These are not the only examples of the president denying his own remarks during the coronavirus crisis, as other outlets have reported:

Washington Post Video TWEET

Before leaving the White House for Camp David on Friday afternoon, Trump offered yet another denial – this time about his past remarks about Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia.

Trump said at least three times at a coronavirus briefing last Thursday that "I wasn't happy with" Kemp after the governor announced he would reopen certain businesses more quickly than the White House guidelines recommend.

But when asked about those remarks Friday, Trump said, "I didn't say that."

The president instead claimed he "didn't like the particular places – a spa, a tattoo parlor," but said states opening up is "wonderful" and that he wants states to open "safely." Trump added that he wasn't "thrilled" about spas and tattoo parlors reopening but had said "nothing about Georgia other than that."

With the number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. topping 63,000, protests against social distancing rules gaining steam and investors searching eagerly for light at the end of the tunnel, Trump's words may hold more weight now than at any other time in his presidency.

Trump, in turn, has positioned himself as the leader of the response to the crisis. While he declined to issue any nationwide lockdown measures, he has insisted that states follow his administration's guidelines for dealing with the outbreak

But his role as lead messenger on coronavirus health updates has proven difficult to reconcile with his political concerns, which are increasing as the 2020 election nears.

Trump's rhetoric has always stood apart from his contemporaries and continues to do so amid the pandemic. But in moments of crisis, it's "exceptionally atypical to have any president continue to draw this much attention to themselves," said Vanessa Beasley, a presidential rhetoric expert and associate professor of communications studies at Vanderbilt University.

"I do think the stakes are higher, because both the economy and people's health are the most material conditions you can experience in your own life," Beasley said. "There is an emotional component to the way the economy works, and we're not hearing a message that we would always have heard in the past."

Trump regularly touts the progress his administration is making as it combats the crisis — and as some of the nation's Covid-19 hot spots start to see measures of the crisis on the decline, markets have regained some of their strength.

More states are starting to "reopen" the industries that were shut down as part of strict social distancing efforts, fueling Trump to emphasize that a reinvigorated economy and a return to normalcy are on the horizon. But his rhetorical inconsistencies may be undercutting his message.

"Trump has to be careful now not to say things that contradict the evidence of ordinary people's experiences, what's right in front of them every day," said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, in a March interview with CNBC.

"When tens of millions of families are having difficulty and experiencing personal pain, you can't tell them the sky is blue when it's green," he said.

In late March, for instance, Trump said he has "always known" that Covid-19 "is a pandemic," claiming he felt that way "long before it was called a pandemic" by others. "I always viewed it as very serious," Trump said.

But Trump never described the outbreak as a pandemic prior to the World Health Organization declaring it as such on March 11, according to a fact check by the Associated Press. And when CNBC's Joe Kernen asked him on Jan. 22 if was worried about a pandemic, Trump said, "No. Not at all. And — we're — we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

President Trump on the coronavirus: We have it totally under control
President Trump on the coronavirus: We have it totally under control

When Trump contradicted his own words in the past, any consequences he suffered mostly took the form of critical headlines and condemnations from his opponents.

Some examples include:

  • On Nov. 20, during the House impeachment inquiry, Trump stood before reporters outside the White House and read then-EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony about a call in which Trump told him: "Tell [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to do the right thing." Trump called Sondland's description of Trump's words on the phone call "the final word from the president of the United States." Later that day, he said, "I didn't say that," when asked later what he meant by "do the right thing."
  • In the final days of his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump acknowledged and apologized for making lewd sexual comments about women in the now-infamous "Access Hollywood" tape. But in late 2017, Trump reportedly began casting doubt in conversations that it was his voice on the tape.
  • The Trump campaign told The Washington Post in March 2016 that it had multiple ways to "compel Mexico" to pay for a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, including having the country "make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion" to keep the U.S. from cutting off the flow of money it sends to Mexico annually. But in January of this year, Trump said he never meant Mexico would pay for the wall directly: "I didn't mean, 'Please write me a check.' I mean very simply, they're paying for it in the trade deal."
  • In early 2016, then-candidate Trump said at a campaign rally that he would pay the legal fees of his supporters who attacked certain anti-Trump protesters: "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise." The next month, Trump denied that he had made the suggestion: "I don't condone violence ... I never said I was going to pay for fees."
  • At a campaign rally in fall 2015, Trump appeared to physically mimic disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, flailing his arms in the air as he said "you gotta see this guy" to the crowd. He later denied mocking the reporter after a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC aired an ad slamming him for it. "I would NEVER mock disabled. Shame!" Trump tweeted after the ad was released.
  • Trump told NBC News' Lester Holt in May 2017 that he made the decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey because of Russia: "When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story." A year later, Trump tweeted, "Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia!"

Compared with those of other modern presidents, Trump's approval ratings have remained relatively steady throughout his first term in office.

But with the election against the apparent Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, about six months away, his support among key demographics has begun to erode, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Trump campaign's internal polling indicates that the president's decline has been related to his performance at the White House coronavirus task force briefings, the Journal reported, citing a person familiar with the results.

Those briefings, which could run more than two hours and often featured lengthy, combative exchanges between Trump and reporters, appear to have been scrapped in the last week. But Trump has still held press events nearly every day since.

"This is a different kind of political crisis, not just in its own unprecedented nature but also in terms of the widespread implications for the economy, for people's families," Vanderbilt's Beasley said. "It definitely hits people where they live."

In this new environment, Trump's old strategy of asserting he alone can fix the nation's problems may further undermine him. 

"The more he does that, the more the contradiction ... between people who said before, 'Oh, I wanted him to be the one to fix it,' and then we don't seem to be seeing the fixing, we just see the him," Beasley said.