It was a dry presentation, with a slide show featuring tables of numbers. The official, William Bryan, explained how the experiments worked. Lab researchers took a large container (like “a five-gallon Home Depot bucket”) and suspended a virus particle inside of it. Then they injected things like ultraviolet radiation and simulating sunlight into the environment to see how the virus reacted. As it turned out, the virus quickly deteriorated in sunlight and humidity (happy news with summer approaching), and readily available cleaning products could do the trick.
“Extra care may be warranted for dry environments that do not have exposure to solar light,” Bryan said. “We’re also testing disinfectants readily available. We’ve tested bleach; we’ve tested isopropyl alcohol on the virus, specifically in saliva or in respiratory fluids. And I can tell you that bleach will kill the virus in five minutes; isopropyl alcohol will kill the virus in 30 seconds, and that’s with no manipulation, no rubbing — just spraying it on and letting it go.”
Not unexpected but good to know, sure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were already recommending mask-wearing, though, recognizing the increasing evidence that the virus spread mostly through the air.
But then President Donald Trump got up to speak.
“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.”
Trump went on: “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?” perhaps misunderstanding the “injection” that Bryan had been referring to. “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.”
It took very little time for this “can we inject disinfectant or light into a human body” theory to ripple outward. “Trump wants us to inject bleach” became something of a punchline (though technically it’s not exactly what he recommended). That shorthand, more than anything else, came to epitomize Trump’s response to the pandemic.
It’s important to remember why. This wasn’t Trump’s first attempt to downplay the pandemic or to suggest that there was some simple, quick solution to it. As cases mounted in February and early March, he repeatedly indicated that things were under control when they weren’t. It became apparent very early on that Trump was more concerned about the economic than the health impacts of the pandemic, almost certainly with an eye on his reelection bid in November.
So even after his administration justifiably called for businesses to shut down in an effort to halt the virus’s spread, Trump quickly reversed his position. In short order, there were rumblings that the restriction recommendations would be scaled back; Trump publicly declared that he hoped they could be lifted by Easter. When his team did announce a plan to reopen, Trump leapfrogged the recommended metrics and called on states that were nowhere near ready to move forward as normal. (“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”)
As the bleach news conference was underway, there was another cure-all Trump had just begun transitioning away from. Following the lead of various Fox News guests, Trump in late March began suggesting that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine would be effective at beating covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. For weeks, despite the lack of evidence supporting his position and mounting evidence undercutting it, Trump hyped the drug, prompting the government to stockpile piles of it on the off chance that it might be shown to be effective in trials.
On April 21, the National Institutes of Health released guidelines recommending against the use of the drug in combination with an antibacterial called azithromycin. The same day the Department of Veterans Affairs said a study of the use of the drugs showed no benefits.
Trump was asked at the April 23 “bleach” briefing why he stopped promoting hydroxychloroquine.
“We’ve had a lot of very good results and we had some results that perhaps aren’t so good,” Trump said. “I don’t know. I just read about one, but I also read many times good.”
This pattern of Trump jumping from one cure-all to the next didn’t stop after that. Through the election, he touted different things to suggest that the whole pandemic was no big deal and would soon go away.
The government was always on the brink of some breakthrough in therapeutics that would mean that covid was cured quickly and easily. Right before the Republican convention, Trump pushed for approval of convalescent plasma as a treatment, another cure-all that apparently wasn’t. After he himself contracted the virus, he touted the “cure” that he had received: a monoclonal antibody treatment. With early voting underway, Trump assured America that this cure would soon be available broadly and for free. It wasn’t and it wasn’t.
By the time of the election, partisan lines on the pandemic had hardened. Trump supporters were blasé about masks and the pandemic in general, following the president’s lead. Democrats and most independents, by contrast, saw little value in Trump’s medical advice, in the way that the villagers in town might be reticent to assume that the shepherd kid had actually seen a wolf.
There was another solution that Trump had been hyping all year, too: vaccines. He and his team made sweeping claims about how soon we would get the vaccines and how broadly they would be available. The government spent heavily to ensure that the United States had access to large supplies of vaccine when they were approved for use. And, in December they were. The trajectory of the pandemic in the country began to shift.
Since he left office, Trump has tried repeatedly to claim full credit for the vaccines. It’s consistent with his history of branding himself: Hammer on the positives over and over while downplaying the negatives. Polling shows that Trump’s endorsement (like the one he offered to the New York Post this week) can shift Republican skepticism on getting the vaccine. But with a voice reduced by leaving office and being banned from social media after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many Republicans haven’t heard his endorsement. His ability to reshape the narrative to his benefit is hampered.
Friday’s anniversary of the “inject disinfectants” line is a reminder of why. Trump wanted something — anything — to emerge that would quickly resolve the pandemic and let him get back to touting the economy. He seized on any and everything, offering bad advice over and over, none worse than the advice of April 23, 2020. And for many Americans that, not the administration’s encouragement of vaccine development, will remain a central part of his legacy on the coronavirus pandemic.