President Trump devoted Monday’s briefing of the coronavirus task force to countering the growing public perception that his administration was slow to respond to a virus that has sickened more than 572,000 Americans and killed more than 23,000.
Responding to a flurry of recent news reports examining his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump came to the briefing armed with a campaign-style video that he said proved that “every thing we did was right.”
The video, which Trump said “was done by a group in the office,” featured favorable remarks made by commentators and politicians about the president that seemed designed to refute a blockbuster report in the New York Times that meticulously laid out what it called “Trump’s failure on the virus.”
“We were way ahead of schedule,” Trump said at the conclusion of the video, adding, “I don’t mind being criticized, but not when they’re wrong.”
The Associated Press, NPR and the Washington Post have all run independently reported pieces on the administration’s slow and unsteady response to the virus. And on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board chastised the president for turning coronavirus task force briefings into de facto campaign rallies.
Asked Monday why he felt compelled to play the video during the coronavirus task force briefing, Trump replied, “Because we’re getting fake news, and I like to have it corrected.”
The video was not the only bit of notable choreography. Moments after the briefing began, Trump called Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert on infectious diseases on the task force, to the podium to clarify remarks he had made during an interview with CNN. Fauci told host Jake Tapper that if social distancing restrictions were put in place earlier in the U.S., lives could have been saved.
“Obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that,” Fauci told Tapper.
Fauci on NYT report on the Trump administration delaying social distancing: "Obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that." pic.twitter.com/OtIcSi8IxH— John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) April 12, 2020
Fauci was at pains to clarify that he had not meant his comments on CNN as criticism of the president, and said that Trump had been responsive to advice from himself and Dr. Deborah Birx.
“The first and only time that Dr. Brix and I went in and formally made a recommendation to the president to actually have a shutdown in the sense that, not really shutdown, but to really have strong mitigation, we discussed that obviously there would concern by some that in fact might have some negative consequences. Nonetheless, the president listened to the recommendations and went to the mitigation,” Fauci said.
Still, on Sunday, Trump retweeted a follower on Twitter who, after watching the CNN interview, wrote it was “Time to #FireFauci.”
On Monday, Trump discounted the idea that he was sending a message about his relationship with Fauci.
“I retweeted somebody,” Trump said, adding that he was “aware” of the hashtag, then contradicting himself, saying “told about that” later.
“Not everybody’s happy with Anthony, not everybody’s happy with everybody,” Trump said.
Polls show that public approval of the president’s handling of the coronavirus response effort continues to fall. A Morning Consult poll released Monday found that Trump’s net approval rating has fallen 18 points since mid-March. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States while 45 percent said they approved of it.
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released last week found that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s leadership during the pandemic, while 43 percent approve.
In all, 40 minutes of Monday’s briefing passed before Trump moved on to issues such as the distribution of supplies to states struggling to treat those sickened with COVID-19.
“We’re ready to rock,” Trump assured his audience, touting the number of ventilators and masks his administration has shipped out and the number of hospital beds made available to patients in New York.
But Trump quickly pivoted back to the question of whether he had acted quickly enough to save lives.
“I saved tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives,” Trump said of his Feb. 3 decision to halt travel between China and the United States.
But reporters pressed the president on his claims.
“Your video has a complete gap. What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?” Paula Reid from CBS News asked.
“A lot. A lot,” Trump responded.
Reid seemed unswayed by the video Trump had shown earlier in the briefing, posting the moment when the president obliged members of the media to watch it.
“The argument is that you bought yourself some time and you didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp up testing,” Reid continued. “Right now, nearly 20 million people are unemployed—”
“You’re so, you’re so disgraceful,” Trump broke in. “It’s so disgraceful the way you say that.”
The reporter and the president then continued to talk over one another.
“Nobody thought we should do it,” Trump said of the implementation of the China travel ban.
A briefing that began with Trump taking aim at the press over its coverage of his handling of the pandemic ended with reporters challenging nearly every glowing claim he made about himself.
On the question of whether he even had legal the authority to force states to “re-open,” which Trump last week called the “biggest decision” he has ever had to make, reporters cited the Constitution, which makes clear that those powers reside with the states.
In response, Trump made another claim that seemed designed to invite further scrutiny.
“The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we are talking about is total,” Trump said.
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