Trump forecasts painful weeks ahead with a 'minimum' of 100,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths

Chris Megerian, Sarah D. Wire
President Trump speaks about the coronavirus at a White House briefing on Tuesday.  (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

President Trump on Tuesday gave his most dire assessment to date of the coronavirus pandemic, telling Americans to prepare for a "minimum number" of 100,000 deaths and urging them to follow strict rules on social distancing to prevent even greater tragedy.

"It's a matter of life and death, frankly," he said at a grim White House news conference nearly devoid of the cavalier pronouncements that have characterized some of his previous briefings about the virus.

"This is going to be a very painful — very, very painful two weeks," he said. "When you look and see at night, the kind of death that's been caused by this invisible enemy, it's incredible."

The U.S. death toll approached 4,000, with roughly 800 Americans reported dead on Tuesday alone, the highest number of daily deaths yet. Top health officials said the country is on track for between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic, even with the monthlong extension of federal guidelines to limit public gatherings, forgo unnecessary travel and avoid restaurants through April 30.

"Each of us has the power — through our own choices and actions — to save American lives and rescue the most vulnerable among us," Trump said. "Every citizen is being called on to make sacrifices. Every business is being asked to fulfill its patriotic duty. Every community is making fundamental changes to how we live, work and interact each and every single day."

Although state officials continued to complain about worrisome shortages of medical equipment, Trump insisted they are rushing to deploy more ventilators and set up battlefield-style field hospitals.

California and Washington appear to be making progress in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, according to government data, but New York and New Jersey are facing exploding caseloads. Health officials said they're focusing now on limiting similar outbreaks in other places.

"That's the piece that we're trying to prevent in New Orleans, in Detroit, in Chicago and in Boston right now," said Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pleaded with Americans to continue following guidelines on social distancing even as the number of cases continued to rise.

"We can't be discouraged by that. The mitigation is actually working, and will work," he said.

Fauci added, "Now is the time, whenever you're having an effect, not to take your foot off the accelerator."

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks at the White House on Tuesday about the potential death toll.  (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Trump has vacillated in his approach to the coronavirus, sometimes downplaying the threat and other times boasting about the swiftness of his response. Last week he said he was hoping to ease social distancing guidelines as soon as Easter in order to boost the stalled economy. His health advisors convinced him to abandon those plans, in part by stressing the latest models pointing to the staggering losses of American lives even with the guidelines in place.

In the past, Trump also dismissively compared the virus to the flu, which he noted also caused thousands of deaths a year without requiring a widespread economic shutdown.

But on Tuesday, Trump appeared to abandon that argument, speaking of a friend who quickly fell into a coma from a coronavirus infection.

"It's not the flu," he said. "It's just vicious."

Trump was somber during the news conference, even morbid at times. He compared the death toll of the pandemic to world wars, said hospitals will be "facing a war zone," and spoke of large freezers being parked outside to hold bodies.

"Our country is in the midst of a great national trial, unlike any we have ever faced before," he said.

Meanwhile, Congress began debating what to do next to address the pandemic, just days after Trump signed a $2-trillion-plus economic stimulus package.

The only point of agreement so far seems to be that the fourth round of legislation is likely weeks from being passed, if not longer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is floating ideas including another direct payment to Americans, expanded paid sick leave and infrastructure projects.

“Our first bills were about addressing the emergency. The third bill was about mitigation. The fourth bill would be about recovery. Emergency, mitigation, recovery,” Pelosi told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Republicans urged patience as the government works to implement the mammoth legislation they just completed. That bill, the single largest economic stimulus measure ever passed, reaches into many facets of American life, including government-backed loans to keep businesses afloat, expanded unemployment insurance, a single direct $1,200 payout to many people and billions of dollars for hospitals and governments.

“First, we need to see what the effect of the current bill is. The Treasury, of course, is wrestling with all this complicated effort to speed checks to individuals and small businesses to get us through this period until the healthcare pandemic begins to subside,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “We need to wait a few days here, a few weeks, and see how things are working out.”

Unlike the previous three packages, which were drafted, negotiated, considered and passed in a matter of days — lightning speed for the lumbering House and Senate — what comes next could take weeks or months.

Both the House and Senate are not scheduled to return to Washington until at least April 20, allowing members to stay home with their families. The last bill was largely negotiated by Senate leaders and the White House, and some House Democrats felt their priorities were ignored. The bill before that was largely negotiated between House leaders and the White House, with some Senate Republicans feeling their priorities were ignored.

House committees are already working remotely to determine what to include in the next package, Pelosi told reporters Monday, and intend to move quickly when they return.

“I do think that it is really important that as soon as we are here, we are ready to pass legislation,” she said.

In addition to sending more money to cities and states facing a drop in tax revenue, Pelosi said Congress should consider things that didn't make it into the previous legislation, like expanded paid family medical leave, new safety regulations for workplaces to deal with airborne viruses and money to shore up pensions.

She also suggested the next package might be the time for Congress to consider an infrastructure package that would include improvements to broadband, water systems and the energy grid.

Some items, like an infrastructure package, have broad bipartisan popularity in theory, but have proven exceedingly difficult to pass in the past. Trump appeared to embrace the idea of infrastructure legislation Tuesday morning.

"With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4," he said in a tweet.

Republicans immediately dismissed many of Pelosi's ideas as a Democratic wish list.

"I would think any kind of bill coming out of the House I would look at like Reagan suggested we look at the Russians — trust, but verify," McConnell said. "I’m not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a separate interview with Hewitt that Congress' full focus should be on public health.

"We shouldn’t look at this as an opportunity to pass our political outbox or ideological agenda. We ought to be all about solving the problem, and that is the public health problem and economic consequences associated with it," Cornyn said.