Trump Downplays COVID-19 Deaths in Viral Interview: 'It Is What It Is ... It's Under Control'

"Where it was is much higher than where it is right now," the president said in a new interview, addressing statistics that show 1,000 people in the U.S. are again dying from the novel coronavirus every day

By turns defensive, dismissive and defiant — with occasional lapses into sympathy — President Donald Trump addressed the rising coronavirus death rates in a new interview that almost immediately boomeranged back on him.

Appearing on Axios on HBO in a Monday episode, Trump argued that the "horrible plague" was "under control as much as you can control it" and suggested it was unfair to compare U.S. deaths as a percentage of the country's overall population, which shows the nation lags almost every other.

To support his point, the president provided several printed charts which he gave to Axios reporter Jonathan Swan.

"We’re lower than the world ... We’re lower than Europe," Trump insisted. ("Lower than the world? What does that mean?" Swan replied.)

Looking at the charts from the president — which showed case fatality rate, or the percentage of confirmed patients who ultimately die — Swan said those numbers did not tell the full story of the coronavirus disease COVID-19.

"You’re doing death as a proportion of cases," he said. "I’m talking about death as a proportion of population, that’s where the U.S. is really bad — much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc."

"You can’t do that," Trump told Swan, who responded, "Why can’t I do that?"

"It’s surely a relevant statistic to say if the U.S. has X population and X percentage of death of that population versus South Korea ... South Korea for example: 51 million population, 300 deaths. It’s like, it’s crazy," Swan told the president.

"You don't know that," Trump told him, but added that he "won’t get into" whether he was implying South Korea was misrepresenting its data.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Later pointing to another chart, the president said, "We’re last, meaning we’re first," to which Swan replied: "Last? I don’t know what we’re first in ... A thousand Americans are dying a day."

As of Tuesday, the U.S. has about a fourth of the world's total confirmed coronavirus cases and 22 percent of its confirmed deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins.

After cases began spiking again in America in mid-June, deaths began rising in early July, statistics show. The president's Axios interview was conducted a week ago, on July 28, when the daily death rate was approximately 1,100 people.

"Death is way down from where it was ... Where it was is much higher than where it is right now," Trump told Swan, adding, "It’s going down again."

Swan replied that in fact that rate was still rising nationally from its lowest point at the beginning of July. The peak of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. was in mid- to late-April.

Their exchange on the death rate has been seen more than 24 million times on Twitter alone, where it has fueled much criticism of Trump's response to the pandemic.

"This is..... horrifying. It’s like every awful internal meeting where nothing makes sense but.... it’s the president?" one user tweeted. Another sarcastically compared it to the HBO satire Veep. (The White House had no comment on Tuesday.)

Appearing on MSNBC on Tuesday, Swan said his "chief takeaway" from the sitdown was that the president "is not confronting reality when it comes to the virus."

Elsewhere in Trump's Axios interview, he defended his pandemic strategy by touting his partial travel bans to China and Europe, his administration's work in providing ventilators and the overall testing numbers.

"Don’t we get credit for that? And because we do more tests, we have more cases," he said, repeating a key talking point.

He argued China was ultimately to blame for the virus' spread and individual states had also failed, not his administration.

"We have done a great job," he said. "We have gotten the governors everything they needed. They didn’t do their job." (Maryland's governor, Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said he was forced to work with South Korea directly when the White House did not help provide enough testing.)

"They are dying, that’s true, and it is what it is," Trump said in his Axios interview. "But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us."

"Nobody knew what this thing was all about," he said. "This has never happened before."

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Trump's detractors have said he has avoided a show of national mourning since the onset of the pandemic that has so far killed more than 155,000 people in the U.S. — choosing instead to publicly disagree with his health experts on wearing face coverings, the value of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and other matters. (Trump did tweet in late May after 100,000 people died of the virus in America, sending his "heartfelt sympathy & love.")

The White House has cast the president in the role of national optimist, arguing he's trying to provide hope in the face of despair.

Swan asked Trump about his "positive thinking" in the Axios interview, wondering if that strategy wasn't instead giving a "false sense of security."

Not so, said the president.

"We have 140,000 people at this moment [who have died]. This is a very, very serious situation," he said at one point in the interview. "And what you have to do is handle it the best it can be handled."

There was a role for both positivity and realism, he told Swan:

"I’ve been given a lot of credit for positive thinking. But I also think of downside, because only a fool doesn’t."

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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