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About Trump’s Fox News Interview

The president displayed difficulty recalling information, interpreting simple graphs, and remembering what Chris Wallace said.
July 20, 2020
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There have been moments during the last three years when President Donald Trump appeared either to be unwell or not in control of his faculties.

The new Fox News Sunday interview with Chris Wallace is another such example.

Let’s leave aside all of the politics—there are plenty of other people writing about those aspects of the interview— and focus instead just on the president’s ability to retain information as seen in the opening exchange on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch the video or I can just give you the transcript:

 

WALLACE: Let’s start with the surge of the coronavirus across the country in recent months. You still talk about it as, quote, “burning embers.” But I want to put up a chart that shows where we are with the illness over the last four months.

As you can see, we hit a peak here in April, 36,000 cases —

TRUMP: Cases.

WALLACE: — a day.

TRUMP: Yes, cases.

WALLACE: Then — then it went down and now since June it has gone up more than double. One day this week 75,000 new cases. More than double —

TRUMP: Chris, that’s because we have great testing, because we have the best testing in the world. If we didn’t test, you wouldn’t be able to show that chart. If we tested half as much, those numbers would be down.

WALLACE: But — but this isn’t burning embers, sir? This is a firestorm.

TRUMP: No, no. But I don’t say — I say flames, we’ll put out the flames. And we’ll put out in some cases just burning embers. We also have burning embers. We have embers and we do have flames. Florida became more flame- like, but it’s — it’s going to be under control.

And, you know, it’s not just this country, it’s many countries. We don’t talk about it in the news. They don’t talk about Mexico and Brazil and still parts of Europe, which actually got hit sooner than us, so it’s a little ahead of us in that sense.

But you take a look, why don’t they talk about Mexico? Which is not helping us. And all I can say is thank God I built most of the wall, because if I didn’t have the wall up we would have a much bigger problem with Mexico.

WALLACE: But, sir, we have the seventh highest mortality rate in the world. Our mortality rate is higher than Brazil, it’s higher than Russia and the European Union has us on a travel ban.

TRUMP: Yeah. I think what we’ll do — well, we have them under travel ban, too, Chris. I closed them off. If you remember, I was the one that did the European Union very early.

But when you talk about mortality risks, I think it’s the opposite. I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: It’s not true, sir. We had — we had 900 deaths on a single day – –

TRUMP: We will take a look —

WALLACE: — just this week —

TRUMP: Ready?

WALLACE: (INAUDIBLE).

TRUMP: Can you please get me the mortality rates?

WALLACE: Yes.

TRUMP: Kayleigh’s right here.

I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.

Do you have the numbers, please? Because I heard we had the best mortality rate.

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: (INAUDIBLE) Dr. Birx points out and this is —

TRUMP: Number one low mortality fatality rates.

I hope you show the scenario because it shows what fake news is all about – –

WALLACE: OK, OK. I don’t think I’m fake news but I will — we’ll put —

TRUMP: Yeah, you are —

WALLACE: — put our staff on —

TRUMP: You said we had the worst mortality rate in the world —

WALLACE: I said you had —

TRUMP: — and we have the best.

Phew. Now here is what I’d like you to focus on. This entire exchange lasted 130 seconds. In the course of it, here is the sequence of claims from Trump and Wallace concerning mortality rates:

  • Wallace: “We have the seventh highest mortality rate in the world.”
  • Trump: “We have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.”
  • Trump: “We have one of the lowest” mortality rates.
  • Trump: “Maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.”
  • Trump: “Number one low mortality fatality rates.” [here he shows Wallace a graph handed to him by his staff]
  • Trump: “You said we had the worst mortality rate in the world . . .”
  • Trump: “. . . and we have the best.”

Note how Trump can’t keep straight where he thinks the U.S. mortality rate ranks. He goes back and forth between saying it’s “one of the lowest” and “the lowest.”

Trump then can’t remember what Wallace said. Wallace says the U.S. has the “seventh highest.” Trump then says, “You said we had the worst mortality rate in the world.”

Why can’t he remember what Wallace said less than two minutes ago?

But the most worrisome moment comes when Trump hands Wallace the chart that the president claims shows “number one low mortality fatality rates.”

Wallace shows the audience the chart. This is it:

Leave aside the fact that the chart Trump is using omits a number of relevant countries. Even among the countries it does count, it does not show the United States with the lowest mortality rate in the world. There are, depending on how finely you slice it, clearly two countries with lower mortality rates.

In other words, the president of the United States is looking directly at a line graph, but is not able to interpret it correctly.

The Fox News Sunday interview shows:

  • Trump cannot remember what his briefing book told him about mortality rates, so he flips back and forth between “one of the lowest” and “the lowest” in the world.
  • Trump cannot correctly interpret the simple graph handed to him by his own staff.
  • Trump cannot recall what Wallace said to him less than two minutes prior.

I’m not sure that there’s any explanation for this exchange that isn’t deeply worrisome for America.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.