WASHINGTON, DC -- Roll up for Donald Trump's old West traveling medicine show. He's marketed steaks and real estate, board games and vodka, but nothing the incorrigible salesman has tried to hawk measures up to his latest routine as he speculated on a possible new cure for Covid-19.
For most of his life as a pitchman, Trump has only had his own reputation on the line. But now, in the middle of a generational health crisis, lives are at stake.
In an eye-popping moment, Trump doubled down on his claim that sunlight and the festering humidity of high summer could purge the virus in his latest grab for a game-changer therapy. Then, he asked aides on camera whether zapping patients with light or injecting disinfectant into the lungs to clean sick patients from inside could cure them of the disease.
"Maybe you can, maybe you can't. Again I say maybe you can, maybe you can't. I'm not a doctor. I'm like a person who has a good you-know-what," Trump said, pointing to his head. That led the Reckitt Benckiser Group, which produces Lysol, to flatly announce on its website that "under no circumstance" should disinfectant be administered into the human body. Washington state's emergency management agency warned against eating Tide pods or injecting disinfectant, tweeting, "don't make a bad situation worse."
Trump's comments made his extravagant claims for the unproven use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine seem peer-reviewed by comparison. And they were ironic, given rising criticism that he repeatedly discredits science that conflicts with his rosy claims the pandemic will soon be over.
Trump's bizarre performance came as the horrible dilemma he faces between keeping the economy closed to halt the virus and getting people back to work became even more stark. New data Thursday showed that 26 million Americans have lost their jobs in five weeks, reflecting the terrible human impact the current emergency can have even on people who don't get sick. The number of US deaths moved towards 50,000 as the virus dug into more communities -- even as a clutch of states laid plans to open back up.
Trump hits back amid critiques of his anti-science approach
The President spent little time at his daily briefing explaining his thinking on how he might safely pilot the nation out of this crisis, instead reaching for a new narrative more hopeful than the grim reality in his latest example of "miracle" thinking on how to beat the pandemic. He called upon William Bryan, acting director of the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology directorate, to unveil research into the coronavirus's susceptibility to heat and light.
Bryan presented data showing that in some circumstances sunlight can reduce the half-life of the virus on a surface or in the air from 18 hours to less than two minutes. "That's how much of an impact U.V. rays has on the virus," Bryan said. He also spoke about how effective bleach and other disinfectants could be at eradicating the pathogen in areas that were not exposed to sunlight in interesting research that could help Americans understand how to clean surfaces.
But Trump, who appeared fascinated by the possibilities, posed a question of entirely different magnitude: "Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light ... supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do, either through the skin or in some other way?" Trump asked, possibly thinking of an analogy to radiation treatment, which can be used to treat cancers.
Then the President pondered another idea: "I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute.
"Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs?"
A few moments later, Trump asked Dr. Deborah Birx, a top member of his pandemic task force, whether heat and light could be combined as a cure for someone facing the cascade of coronavirus complications including respiratory problems, cardiac issues and kidney failure that can be caused when the body tries to fight the virus and overreacts.
The veteran MD and internationally renowned public health expert -- who was seated off to the side -- appeared to struggle with how to respond.
"Not as a treatment ... it's a good thing when you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But ... I've not seen heat for viruses."
When Trump was subsequently asked why he was touting rumored cures and not medically proven science, the President reacted angrily, accusing the reporter of pushing fake news.
"I'm just here to present talent. I'm here to present ideas because we want ideas to get rid of this thing," Trump said.
The surreal nature of the spectacle later prompted CNN's Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta to reflect on air: "This is sort of becoming President Trump's traveling medicine show."
Everyone wants a cure
Everyone who has lost their job, battled the virus, seen relatives die or has been stuck in their house for weeks can sympathize with Trump's fierce desire for a cure.
And leaders who think out of the box are valuable. Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was known for "funny science" and flights of fancy like a proposal to turn icebergs into unsinkable aircraft carriers. But amid his wild schemes, he had some great ideas that helped win the war, too.
So it's easy to mock Trump. But he also has the world's largest megaphone, appears to be openly mulling a treatment that could cause people to poison themselves if they adopted it and has a record of deflecting from the grave reality of the virus to peddle optimism that may not be matched by the facts. He also seems to have little time for the rigorous clinical testing and factual deduction that is at the heart of generations of advances in clinical science and is the bedrock of ethical medicine.
There is some scientific evidence that seasonal sunlight and humidity can make it more difficult for a virus to spread. But the struggle of tropical states like Singapore to contain a second wave of the pandemic appears to indicate that heat is not a miracle cure. And sunlight can't eradicate the spread of the virus among people gathering in large groups, or inside buildings.
In a CNN town hall later Thursday evening, US Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn insisted that Trump's musings about light therapy represented a "natural question" someone would ask based on the presented data. Pressed by Anderson Cooper, Hahn added: "I certainly wouldn't recommend the internal ingestion of a disinfectant."
Trump's comments horrified medical experts
Renowned cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Reiner told CNN's Erin Burnett that the President needed to leave the medical analysis to the professionals and that his statements needed to be vetted because so many people listen to him.
"If the President thinks that tanning beds are going to cure the coronavirus, it is a mistake, it's not going to happen," Reiner said.
Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at LifeSpan/Brown University, told Burnett that viruses and bacteria don't live as long in sunlight and said there probably would be a decrease of coronavirus infections over the summer.
But she added: "Sunlight is not a panacea. It is not going to be a cure-all. It is not going to save us from the virus."
The latest medical follies came a day after a top administration vaccine specialist Rick Bright said he was ousted after blocking funding for unproven virus cures touted by the President.
Trump and his allies on conservative media spent weeks touting hydroxychloroquine based on small anecdotal studies in France and China. But a study this week by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia found that hundreds of patients at US Veterans Administration hospitals who took the drug were no less likely to need mechanical ventilation and had higher death rates compared to those who did not take it.
Trump angrily denied that he had now stopped pushing the drug -- though he hasn't talked it up for days in the briefing.
"We have had a lot of very good results. And we had some results that perhaps aren't so good. I don't know," Trump said.
Thursday was not the first time that Trump has speculated that warmer weather could just make the virus disappear.
"You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat -- as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April," Trump said on Fox News on February 10. He added later at a rally, "Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. I hope that's true."
The President's hopes have been proven wrong. But the last sentence of his comment shows how he advances a wild theory but then gives himself some cover. By saying he hopes the virus would go away, he can accuse anyone questioning his comments as rooting against a cure and of peddling despair. When he says maybe something will work or maybe it won't, he gives himself similar leeway.
Trump also contravened facts in a more conventional manner during his briefing. He was told that the country's infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci had warned in a Time magazine interview earlier that he was not "overly confident" the US had the robust testing operation in place to safely open up the country.
"I don't agree with him on that. No, I think we're doing a great job on testing," Trump said.
(CNN's Jim Acosta contributed to this report.)