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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Trump’s Coronavirus ‘Experts’: A Field Guide

While millions of Americans may be worried about Donald Trump's fitness to manage the coronavirus pandemic, the fact is he has spent the past half-century accruing credentials to prepare for this moment: real estate mogul, author, WWE Hall of Famer, steak pitchman, reality TV star, and, now, politician. In fact, his many-thing-ness is one of his defining attributes: Trump sees himself as the consummate generalist. When asked in early 2016 who he was consulting with to prepare for the job of president, he famously replied, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”

To put it in technical terms that the president would have little time for, Trump has arguably emerged as history’s most fervent proponent of the “g factor” theory of general intelligence. It makes sense, then, that he tends to listen to people who share his cross-disciplinary confidence.

Here’s a guide to some of the men—and, yes, they do all seem to be men—who refuse to let a lack of relevant knowledge or training stop them from weighing in on how to deal with the pandemic.

Peter Navarro

Who he is: Trade adviser to the president.

Academic credentials: PhD in economics

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Brought a stack of foreign research on chloroquine to a meeting of the coronavirus task force and angrily upbraided Tony Fauci for not embracing the antimalarial drug. “That’s science, not anecdote,” he yelled, according to Axios. (The French study that put chloroquine on the map as a coronavirus treatment was riddled with flaws, including a lack of a control group and a tiny sample size. It also somewhat unhelpfully excluded from the analysis patients who died.) Navarro does hold the distinction of being perhaps the only administration official to take the threat of a pandemic seriously as early as January.

Coronavirus expertise: “My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist,” he told CNN. “I have a PhD. And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics, or whatever.”

Rudy Giuliani

Who he is: Former federal prosecutor, mayor of New York, presidential candidate, Trump’s personal attorney; current informal Trump adviser.

Academic credentials: Law degree

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Along with Navarro, has pushed the wider use of chloroquine.

Coronavirus expertise: “One of the things that a good litigator becomes is, you kind of become an instant expert on stuff, and then you forget about it,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t claim to be a doctor. I just repeat what they said.”

Richard Epstein

Who he is: Law professor at New York University and one of the country’s leading libertarian legal academics.

Academic credentials: Law degree

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Published an article for the Hoover Institution’s website on March 16 arguing that the reaction to the disease was going too far. According to Epstein, as deadlier strains of the virus claim more victims, the cases that spread will be weaker, less deadly strains. (Here it’s worth mentioning that there is absolutely no evidence that there are stronger and weaker strains of the coronavirus. “The fallacy in his argument is the overall lack of scientific rigor in his analysis,” Daniel Kuritzkes, the chief of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told The New Yorker.)

Got a coronavirus-related news tip? Send it to us at covidtips@wired.com.

In his March 16 article, which reportedly influenced the White House’s short-lived pivot toward reopening the economy by Easter, Epstein predicted 500 US deaths, a number that was surpassed one week later. He later admitted that was a mistake and updated his estimate to 5,000. (As of this writing there have been about 11,000 reported coronavirus-related deaths in the US.) Eventually, he updated his update to 50,000.

Coronavirus expertise: “I’m trained in all of these things,” he told The New Yorker, ambiguously. “I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for 40 years in its relationship to law.”

Aaron Ginn

Who he is: Cofounder of the Lincoln Network, a conservative, tech-focused think tank.

Academic credentials: Bachelor’s degree

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Authored a viral Medium post arguing that the response to the coronavirus amounted to “hysteria.” After a thorough debunking by biologist Carl T. Bergstrom and others, Medium took the post down. By that point it had been seen millions of times and was massively boosted by Fox News hosts. Along with Epstein’s article it seems to have helped inspire Trump’s “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” phase.

Coronavirus expertise: “I’m quite experienced at understanding virality, how things grow, and data,” he wrote, referring to his background as a self-described “growth hacker” in Silicon Valley.

Donald Trump

Who he is: The most trusted adviser to the President of the United States, himself.

Academic training: Bachelor’s degree; several honorary doctorates (though one has been revoked)

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: How much time do you have? Since February, to take a very partial survey, he has compared the virus to the flu, insisted it would miraculously disappear one day, predicted that a vaccine would be available “relatively soon,” and repeatedly hyped the very-far-from-proven benefits of chloroquine, urging Americans during a live, televised briefing to try taking it if they want.

Coronavirus expertise: “Maybe I have a natural ability,” Trump told reporters at a press briefing in early March, alluding to his “super genius” uncle, the late MIT engineer John G. Trump. “Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

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