President Donald Trump being interviewed by the Axios reporter Jonathan Swan on HBO.

Axios on HBO/YouTube

President Donald Trump told the journalist Jonathan Swan “you can’t do that” and criticized his reporting in a recent interview when Swan noted the high COVID-19 death rate per capita in the US.

In an interview with Swan for “Axios on HBO,” Trump instead pushed other measurements like the case fatality rate, where the US ranks more favorably among nations.

When Swan pointed out that the US was averaging about 1,000 coronavirus deaths a day recently, Trump said “but you’re reporting it wrong.”

Trump also repeated a favored talking point by claiming the US had a higher recorded case count than other countries only because of its high amount of testing. Experts say this is not true.

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President Donald Trump refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the US’s high per capita death rate from COVID-19 in a tumultuous interview in which he instead argued for more flattering statistics.

The president sparred with the political reporter Jonathan Swan for “Axios on HBO” in an interview that aired Monday night.

During the interview, Swan attempted to press him on this metric with cases surging in the US.

According to Johns Hopkins University data, as of Tuesday the US was the 10th-worst nation in terms of per capita coronavirus deaths, with 47.50 per 100,000 people.

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The metric, known as the mortality rate, reflects how many people are dying with COVID-19 as a proportion of a country’s population.

Two of the countries with higher mortality rates than the US — San Marino and Andorra — are small European nations that combined have reported fewer than 100 COVID-19 deaths in total. The other countries were Belgium, the UK, Peru, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Chile.

When asked about this way of measuring the impact of the pandemic, Trump was dismissive.

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“You can’t do that,” he said.

“Why can’t I do that?” Swan asked.

Swan interviewing Trump.

Axios on HBO/YouTube

“Look, here is the United States,” Trump said, rifling through a series of printed charts. “You have to go by the cases,” he added, saying Swan should look at “the people that live from those cases.”

In essence, Trump wanted to discuss the case fatality rate — the proportion of known cases that end in death.

The US case fatality rate has improved since the pandemic was in its first peak in April and May.

At 3.3%, it’s slightly better than global average, according to the statistics site Our World In Data. It is ahead of those of some countries whose pandemic response has been praised, such as Germany and Spain.

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The problem with the case fatality rate, however, is that it can vary based on the testing in any given country. The more mild cases a country finds, the lower the number will appear.

Countries that test only people showing symptoms are likely to have a higher death rate, since more of those infections are likely to prove fatal. While there are also difficulties obtaining reliable death data, the per capita metric is thought to be less affected by such inconsistencies.

Swan and Trump had a heated, circular exchange about which metrics Trump approved of, with Swan exasperated.

“It’s surely a relevant statistic to say if the US has X population, and X percentage of death per head of that population,” he began.

“No, because you have to go by the cases,” Trump replied.

“Look at South Korea for example. Fifty-one million population, 300 deaths,” Swan said.

“You don’t know that,” Trump said. Asked whether he was accusing the country of faking its statistics, he said: “I won’t get into that because I have a very good relationship with the country, but you don’t know that, and they have spikes.”

Instead, Trump pointed to another chart. “Look, here’s one right here,” he said. “United States. You take the number of cases and look, we’re last. Meaning we’re first. We have the best.”

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It is unclear which metric the president was referring to. He continued by returning to a debunked claim he’d made before: that the high US coronavirus case count is a product of its widespread testing and not an indicator of how much the virus has spread relative to other countries.

The US has conducted more tests than anywhere else in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Don’t we get credit for that?” he said. “And because we do more tests, we have more cases.”

Trump said in June that testing was “overrated” because it made the US “look bad,” and he said later that month that the US was doing “too good a job” at testing. 

Scientists, however, have debunked the idea that expanded testing explains the high number of US cases. 

Jennifer B. Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called Trump’s theory “dangerously wrong” in a piece in The Washington Post in June. 

She noted that in many states new cases were outpacing the spread of testing, suggesting that the results were still an undercount.

Swan later attempted to get the president to focus on the proportionately high death rate, saying: “1,000 Americans are dying a day.”

The US has averaged more than 1,000 deaths a day since July 29, according to the statistics website Worldometer.

“No, but you’re not reporting it correctly, Jonathan,” Trump said. 

Swan disagreed: “If hospital rates were going down and deaths were going down, I’d say ‘terrific. You deserve to be praised for testing. But they’re all going up. Sixty thousand Americans are in hospital, 1,000 dying a day.”

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