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Why Is Trump Obsessed with Hydroxychloroquine?

It's in his bones.
April 7, 2020
Why Is Trump Obsessed with Hydroxychloroquine?
A Hydroxychloroquine Sulfate medication pill. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 20,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. U.S. President Donald Trump recently promoted Hydroxychloroquine, a common anti-malaria drug, as a potential treatment for COVID-19 when combined with the antibiotic azithromycin. “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” President Trump tweeted last week. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

You know the old saying: When you’re a con artist who once ran a multi-level-marketing scheme that sold “vitamins,” everything looks like a miracle drug.

Speaking of which, the president of the United States has some things to tell you about the medicine hydroxychloroquine, which is used to treat malaria and lupus:

“We bought a tremendous amount of hydroxychloroquine, which I think is, you know, it’s a great malaria drug. It’s worked unbelievably.”

“I’m not a doctor. But I have common sense.”

“What do you have to lose? And a lot of people are saying that, and are taking it.”

There are many questions surrounding the White House’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine. Whether someone has a financial incentive for pushing it. (It’s certainly possible, since he has at least some stake.) The extent to which it actually works (Fingers crossed!) Which TV doctor got the president so spun up on it? (Dr. Oz?)

Some of these are unanswerable. The Trump family’s finances are still impossibly opaque. I have no relevant expertise in immunosuppressive pharmaceuticals. And performing forensic accounting on Trump’s television habits would require access to the meta-data inside his super-DVR remote.

But I do, regrettably, know far too much about the career of Donald Trump. And his weeks long hydroxychloroquine song and dance is simply a redux of the pitch job that has served him so well for four decades: Sell the newest Trump-branded miracle scheme as hard as possible until it becomes completely untenable, the feds show up, or the next one bubbles up from the recesses of his frontal lobe.

You may or may not know about “Ideal Health.”

Ideal Health was a multi-level-marketing company—that’s the polite term for “pyramid scheme”—founded in the 1990s that sold personalized vitamin supplements based on the results of a urine test.

This pee test supposedly provided “a scientific window into your personal biochemistry.”

The company hired a network of low- to middle-income salespeople who earned a commission both from vitamin sales and from recruiting other salespeople. Ideal Health would charge these salespeople thousands of dollars up front to get access to marketing materials and other “network benefits.”

You will not be surprised to learn that many of these people lost all their money and didn’t sell any vitamins. Dozens of them filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. The company had to settle a lawsuit with the FTC over false claims that “Supreme Greens”one of their signature products—“cured cancer.”

In short, Ideal Health was a shady vitamin pyramid scheme with a reputation for lying about cancer cures.

Naturally, Donald J. Trump had to get a piece of the action.

In March 2009, Trump purchased Ideal Health and then took Worldcom and Stringer Bell’s advice on fixing a troubled asset by giving it a shiny new gold lamé moniker. He called it “The Trump Network.”

Under Trump, The Network offered a miracle “custom essential” multivitamin based on the “privatest.” They also offered pills for “silhouette solutions” (a diet program), skin care, low-energy, and of course some “Snazzle Snaxxs” for the kids. (I’m sure the health benefits of the Snazzle Twissters Sour Cream and Onion were legion).

But Trump’s real value add was as a pitch man. The Trump Network launch came on the heels of the financial meltdown, so he updated the Ideal Health proposition to would-be salespeople, convincing them that if they listened to Trump they would discover the cheat code to breaking out of financial hardship.

You should watch for yourself.

The Trump Network - Donald Trump and Ideal Health Team Up

“Americans need a new plan. They need a new dream. The Trump Network wants to give millions of people renewed hope, with an exciting plan to opt-out of the recession . . . with cutting edge health and wellness formulas.”

To anyone watching Trump’s pandemic press briefings, his Trump Network spiel sounds familiar. What do you have to lose?!

Or as Trump apologist Ari Fleischer delicately puts it, the president always “reaches for hope.”

(I suppose the big guy just can’t help himself. He’s a lot like Reagan and Lincoln in that way, right Ari?)

Of course, for people in The Trump Network, the false promises, or misleading snakeoil, or incorrigible, happy-warrior hope—call it what you will—wound up costing them a lot.

Those who joined didn’t get to opt-out of the recession the way Trump had promised. Instead they had their hardship extended. More bills they couldn’t afford.

FTC complaints came down the pike, again. The Washington Post later reported that Trump Network sales representatives said “they paid thousands of dollars for leadership programs, infomercials, starter kits, and other materials that they never recovered in sales.” As one FTC complaint put it, “They try to use [people’s] hopes and dreams to empty their wallets.”

Offering hope with one hand while grabbing cash with the other was not a one off move for Trump with Ideal Health. It was basically his business model.

In 2018 the Trump family was hit with a RICO lawsuit that laid out a pattern of scams where Donald Trump “deliberately defrauded” vulnerable people who were convinced to put thousands of dollars they didn’t have into marketing schemes that made Trump millions but returned little to nothing to them.

Each scam—from the Trump Network to ACN to Trump University—followed the same playbook. Trump used his image and fame to sell false hope to the marks.

The hope that they could get rich. That they could get the perfect body. That they could find the custom essential vitamin that works only for them. That they could be an orange billionaire in a penthouse with a hot wife and a hotter side piece. All they had to do was give Donald Trump their last paycheck, swallow another vitamin, take this one more class.

And by the time the marks figured out that the scheme didn’t work, Trump had taken the monorail to the next town over. Selling new suckers (and the same media) on a similar bill of goods.

As David Frum wrote a few weeks ago

This is how Donald Trump is wired. He doesn’t know any other way. And he has no incentive to change his behavior because the neverending scam wheel eventually landed him in the most important job in the world.

God-willing maybe the rest of us will get lucky and hydroxychloroquine will turn out to be the one scheme that actually works.

You could bet your venture capital on it, if you have some. I just wouldn’t bet your life.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.