Trump Reboots Virus Briefings With Warning and a Shift in Tone
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/UPI/Bloomberg)

Trump Reboots Virus Briefings With Warning and a Shift in Tone

President Donald Trump on Tuesday rebooted his coronavirus briefings with a warning about a surge in U.S. cases even as he sought to reassure Americans that his administration has the crisis under control.

Trump took a notably more reserved tone than in earlier briefings, encouraging Americans to wear masks and avoid risky behavior. He said he views governors as his partners, a change in tone from several months ago when he repeatedly tore into state executives who criticized him.

“We will defeat the virus,” Trump said. But he added: “It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.”

Trump Reboots Virus Briefings With Warning and a Shift in Tone

The briefing lasted just under half an hour -- far shorter than those in the past when they would routinely last for well over an hour.

Trump spoke by himself, without Vice President Mike Pence and top administration health officials such as Anthony Fauci, the top federal infectious disease expert, who’d joined him in earlier news conferences.

He appeared in the White House briefing room as many voters have said they’ve lost confidence in his handling of the pandemic and the economic fallout from it.

The president trails Democratic rival Joe Biden by 8 points according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages. A Fox News poll released over the weekend showed Biden with a 17-point advantage when respondents were asked whom they trusted more to handle the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has killed more than 140,000 Americans and cases have been rising rapidly -- particularly in the southern and western U.S., where governors hurried to reopen their economies after initially urging residents to stay home and take other steps to slow the spread of the virus.

Trump Reboots Virus Briefings With Warning and a Shift in Tone

‘Better Than Most’

“We’ve done much better than most,” Trump said. “We’ve learned a lot about this disease and how to handle it.”

Trump’s tone changed on masks, continuing an evolution in recent days. Face coverings became highly politicized after he resisted wearing a mask in public and left it up to state and local officials to decide whether to impose restrictions.

“Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact,” Trump said. “We’re asking everybody when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask.”

Trump strayed from the topic at hand in response to a question from a reporter related to Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide last year after being arrested on sex-trafficking charges. He expressed well wishes for Epstein’s jailed associate Ghislaine Maxwell, who is charged with procuring young girls to be sexually abused. “I just wish her well, frankly,” Trump said.

The president’s poll numbers prompted some within the White House, including senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, to argue that Trump should restart the evening appearances before the media. Those sessions, which typically included top administration health officials, were a mainstay in March and April when polls showed the public was more supportive of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Yet Trump’s appearances also led to high-profile embarrassments and reversals, most notably the time he asked government scientists about the possibility of injecting humans with disinfectant to cure the virus. He’d also told Americans in the briefings that he wanted to reopen the nation by the Easter holiday, and repeatedly touted unproven cures like hydroxychloroquine.

And while the president has not held regular press briefings since discontinuing them in late April, he has continued to generate controversy when discussing the pandemic. On July 4, Trump falsely declared that 99% of virus cases were “totally harmless.” And in recent interviews, Trump has dismissed warnings from Fauci over the severity of the pandemic.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said earlier Tuesday that Trump is “the right person to give information to the American people” about the disease because he had been “a leader” on the issue.

“And boy, does he get the information to a lot of the American people during his briefings, as noted by the ratings,” she said.

Briefing Viewers

An average of 8.5 million Americans watched the briefings on cable news during their height, according to the New York Times.

In an interview earlier in the day with Fox News, she said Trump’s appearances would be “most days” but “maybe not all days” and that he “does generally plan on taking questions.” She also indicated that the president planned to keep the sessions “short,” which would be a change from the earlier marathon briefings.

Trump has said he hopes to use the latest round of press conferences to tout advances that U.S. pharmaceutical companies are making toward therapeutics and a vaccine for the virus. Optimism over that progress has buoyed markets despite the U.S. tallying more than 3.7 million cases -- the most reported by any country -- of the approximately 14.5 million worldwide.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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