Trump says ‘I’m not kidding’ after attendees argued he was joking about declining coronavirus testing

President Donald Trump flatly contradicted his aides on Tuesday when he said he was not “cheating,” after for days they had been arguing that he was joking when he said at a weekend campaign rally that he had told officials to stop the coronavirus testing.

It was yet another White House instance struggling to find language to downplay one of his comments that had triggered a firestorm, only for Trump himself, in the end, to provide a completely different explanation.

This time, top deputies had repeatedly argued that Trump was joking when he told supporters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday: “When you test to that extent, you are going to find more people, you are going to find more cases.” So I said to my people, ‘Slow down the test, please.’ ”

But on Tuesday, Trump said he is not joking.

“I’m not kidding,” Trump told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, on the way to speak to young supporters at a megachurch and visit the US-Mexico border in Arizona, a coronavirus access point. “Let me tell you, let me clarify: We have the best testing program in the entire world.”

The morning after Trump’s Tulsa speech, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro had said in an interview with CNN that Trump’s comment was “ironic.”

“That was a light moment for him at a rally,” said Navarro.

Then on Monday morning, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been intimately involved in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, told ABC News that he had not overheard any conversations about the evidence slowdown and that Trump must have been joking.

Later that morning, in an interview with Scripps National News, a journalist asked Trump himself, twice, if he had actually asked his staff to slow down the speed of evidence.

Given the opportunity to expand on his widely criticized comment, the President said nothing about whether he had been joking.

“Uh,” Trump said, pausing. “If it slowed down, frankly, I think we are way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth. We have done too good a job.”

Shortly afterward, ABC News asked White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany during a White House press conference if Trump had ordered officials to stop the evidence.

“No, he hasn’t directed that,” said McEnany. He added that “any suggestion that the evidence has been scaled down is not in fact rooted.”

“It was a comment he made as a joke,” he said.

Pressed on the desirability of clarifying the issue of the coronavirus that has killed more than 120,000 Americans, McEnany said Trump was “joking about the media and his inability to understand the fact that when more is tried, more cases are also found.”

In another interview taped Monday, Trump was explicitly asked if his comment had been “ironic.”

“It’s semi-tongue on the cheek,” the president told Christian Broadcasting Network k. “I say it all the time. I know some people thought it was tongue on cheek. It is unfair. We are doing a lot of tests, much more than any other country. And to be honest with you, when you do more tests, you find more cases” .

When asked if he ordered his staff to stop testing for coronavirus, Trump said, “No, but I think we were at a disadvantage. I told my people. I said, ‘We’ve gotten so good at testing.'”

“Instead of doing 25 million tests, let’s say we did 10 million tests,” he added. “It seems that we are doing much better, because we would have far fewer cases.”

Apparently referring to whether he told them to stop testing, he added: “I would not do that. But I will say this. We do much more than other countries. In a way, it makes us look bad, but in reality we are doing the right thing.”

But then, a day later, Trump contradicted not only his aides but himself.

It was not the first time that Trump and the White House press secretary had disagreed trying to explain a controversial comment from the President.

In April, after Trump was widely criticized for suggesting that an “injection” of a “disinfectant” could be used to treat the coronavirus, McEnany first argued that the comment had been taken out of context. Hours later, Trump said he had been speaking “sarcastically.”

On Tuesday, when asked by a reporter outside the White House if he was joking or if he had a plan to delay the evidence, Trump replied, “I’m not joking.”

As he had done on Saturday, Trump explained that more tests lead to more coronavirus cases, which may be true in absolute terms, but according to public health experts, it is not the only reason for the increase in infection rates. in many cities and states around the world. the country. Testing a large portion of the population may actually also lead to a decrease in the percentage of people who test positive, since with more tests available, people less likely to be infected, who would not have been tested before, are tested. the test in a high score.

Despite those facts, Trump repeated his argument that “the reason we have more cases than other countries is because our evidence is too much.”

He did not respond directly if he wanted testing in the US. USA They were slower, but explained that “the tests are a double-edged sword.”

“In a sense, it tells you that you have cases,” he said. “Otherwise, you find out where the cases are and you do a good job.”

A couple of hours later, two senior US public health officials. Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci and federal coronavirus testing coordinator Admiral Brett Giroir said during a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday that neither Trump nor anyone in the administration had ever told them to stop tests.

When asked to explain to the president by saying, “I’m not kidding,” McEnany told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday that, at his rally in Tulsa, Trump “was making a serious point, but was using sarcasm to make that”.

“The serious point I was making is that when you examine more people, you identify more cases,” he said.

During an interview with Fox News that was recorded on Monday and aired on Tuesday morning, Trump said: “I don’t mean slow down, but if we did or we didn’t do so many, let’s say instead of 25 million tests , we did 5 million tests, we would be very low in cases right now. And everyone would say, isn’t it wonderful?

Anne Flaherty of ABC News contributed reporting.