Trump spars with reporter at coronavirus briefing, but plays nice with other rivals

By Caitlin Oprysko

President Donald Trump on Wednesday clashed again with reporters at one of his coronavirus task force briefings at the White House, hours after he complained that critical media coverage of his desire to reopen parts of the country by Easter was intended to hurt his reelection chances.

But apart from that confrontation, the normally combative president seemed eager to play nice, paying compliments to his usual political rivals while pulling punches on China. Here are some of the top moments from Wednesday’s press briefing:

1. Brawling with the media

Early in the question-and-answer portion of the briefing, Trump was asked about an earlier post on Twitter in which he’d charged that the “LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.”

Referring to the president’s push to reopen the country by Easter, a timeline at odds with medical experts‘ advice, CBS News’ Paula Reid asked whether that goal was rooted in Trump’s “political interests.”

“Just so you understand, are you ready?” Trump shot back. “I think there are certain people who would like it to not open so quickly. I think there are certain people that would like it to do financially poorly because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls.”

“And I don't know if that is so, but I do think it’s so that there are people in your profession that would like that to happen, I think it's very clear,” he continued.

Trump has repeatedly accused the news media of looking to undermine his presidency, labeling journalists “the enemy of the people” countless times while deflecting blame for negative coverage on a peeved press corps.

He continued to rail at Reid, accusing her and another reporter of writing “fake news” but declining to offer any evidence to back up his allegation.

“They would love to see me, for whatever reason, because we've done one hell of a job — nobody's done the job that we've done,” he argued, “and it's lucky that you have this group here right now for this problem or you wouldn't even have a country left.”

2. Patching things up with New York

But after Trump‘s spat with reporters, the president let cooler heads prevail when addressing some of his usual political rivals.

Trump’s relations with the leaders of New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., have been touch and go over the past several weeks as the state has grappled with coronavirus, a fact that neither Trump nor Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, have been shy to admit.

But Cuomo signaled a detente on Wednesday morning, and Trump reciprocated his mollified tone at the evening briefing, acknowledging that the state where he was born and lived nearly his entire life was facing a “number of very tough weeks” but that Cuomo was doing “a very good job.”

“I want you to know that I’m doing everything in my power to help the city pull through this challenge,” Trump insisted. “I'm working hard in New York.”

Though he asserted that the outbreak in the state, which has reported more than 10 times more cases than the next hardest hit state, “is by far our biggest problem,” Trump said there were “a lot of good, capable people working on it with us.”

3. Going easy on congressional Democrats

The president also appeared eager to avoid a confrontation with congressional Democrats, declining to criticize his political rivals when asked about one of the provisions they negotiated into the $2 trillion stimulus bill working its way through Congress.

Asked about $25 million that would be set aside for D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Trump shrugged off concerns about the amount, chalking it up as the fruit of bipartisan compromise.

“That was not my request, but you've got to give them something,” the president explained. “It’s something that they wanted. You know, it works that way.” Trump, wary as ever of the optics of a given situation, acknowledged he was prepared for criticism of the provision. “I said that's a lousy sound bite,” he told reporters. “That's not a good sound bite, but that's the way life works.”

Despite criticizing the week’s marathon negotiations as partisan mere days ago, Trump had kind words for Democratic leaders on Wednesday after they brokered a deal with the White House and Republican leadership in the middle of the night.

“The Democrats have treated us fairly, and I really believe we‘ve had a very good back-and-forth and I say that with respect to [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer.”

4. Shying away from a confrontation with the WHO

The president similarly pulled his punches when asked about comments from several Republican lawmakers suspicious of laudatory comments by the World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, about the way China handled the coronavirus outbreak .

Though China, where the current outbreak originated, has been accused of a lack of transparency and censorship in the earliest days of the disease, the WHO has in recent weeks commended the country‘s success in reining in the virus — in addition to other countries like South Korea that got the outbreak under control. Asked whether he saw “red flags” or felt that the WHO showed China favoritism, Trump mostly demurred.

“I think that a lot of people feel it‘s been very unfair, it’s been very much sided with China,” Trump said of the U.N.-based organization, adding that it also included “a lot of good people, a lot of good professionals” and that the director general “seems fine.”

“But the fact is that I have heard for years that that is very much biased towards China, so I don't know,” he said, then turned to his infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Fauci, you want me to get you into this political mess?” he quipped. After Fauci stepped to the lectern to defend Tedros, Trump again touted his decision to bar foreigners traveling to the U.S. from China, a move he has repeatedly pointed to as proof he took the virus seriously early on.

5. Praise for Japan's 'wise' decision to postpone Olympics

The president applauded the decision from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to delay the Summer Olympics, which were set to begin in Tokyo in July, until 2021 because of the crisis, saying he told Abe in a phone call on Tuesday night that the move was “a wise choice.”

“I think it’s going to be a fantastic Olympics — it was the absolute right decision to delay it for a full year,” Trump told reporters, despite his suggestions that the pandemic has turned a corner.

Now Tokyo will “have a full, beautiful Olympics,” he added, noting the rarity of the games being held in an odd year (the Olympics have only ever been canceled, never postponed). ”It’s always on an even year, they tell me. But he's going to have a fantastic success, and now he will have even more time. He didn't need any more time. Everything was perfectly ready. What a job they've done.”