WASHINGTON — The daily number of new coronavirus cases in the country continued to top a troubling 60,000 over the weekend, led by an outbreak in Florida, while California on Monday became the latest large state to significantly reverse its reopening.
It’s an urgent public health crisis that is dominating the country’s attention. But President Trump’s focus mostly has been elsewhere.
He has no coronavirus-related events on his public schedule this week, instead holding events on “rolling back regulations,” infrastructure, and praising law enforcement officers. On Twitter, Trump spent the past few days delivering his thoughts about how often he plays golf, his Friday night commutation of the jail sentence of his friend Roger Stone, the border wall, the “lamestream” media and recent polls.
The few times recently that the president has publicly talked about the virus ripping through the country have been to criticize the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for safely reopening schools, which he has characterized as overcautious, and sharing posts mocking the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and alleging a conspiracy of doctors against his reelection. Trump created news on Saturday by the simple act of donning a face mask to visit veterans at a military hospital, the first time he let the media see him wearing one.
The president, who faces reelection in less than four months, has continued to project a sunny vision of a vanquished virus, similar to when he said this month that coronavirus would “sort of disappear” and urged states to rapidly reopen their economies. But as the nation is again facing a soaring case count, that strategy is crashing into reality.
“The approach of trying to pretend that this is not happening is going to backfire. You can’t hide infections and deaths,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and associate professor with the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. “People are going to start demanding more from their leaders when they start to see their loved ones affected. It is not a sustainable strategy.”
The president is also entering uncharted waters, politically, as the virus has begun to tear through red states such as Texas and Florida, which are key to his reelection. “That is the unique dynamic now,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist and one of the founders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project super PAC. “It is affecting his core base.”
A poorly attended indoor Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla., late last month, which local officials believe led to a spike in COVID cases, offered a clue that Trump voters may take the virus more seriously than the president appeared to believe.
“If that is not a sign that he is headed in the wrong direction I don’t know what is,” Madrid said of the sea of empty seats in the Tulsa arena. “That is like a glaring, neon stop sign blaring at you with a megaphone.”
Public health experts, including Fauci, stress that the rising cases are very worrisome and that mass testing, contact tracing, and mask usage are still the best way to control the virus.
“All you needed to do was look at the films on TV of people in some states who went from shutdown to complete throwing caution to the wind — bars that were crowded, people without masks,” Fauci said Monday during an event held by Stanford University. “You don’t necessarily need to shut down again, but pull back a bit.”
Still Trump, who has frequently undercut the public health experts who work for him, is sticking to his own rosier version of events.
On Monday morning, he retweeted a commentator falsely claiming that doctors and the CDC are spreading “lies” about the pandemic to influence the election, and another post critiquing Fauci. Over the weekend, White House officials anonymously provided reporters at the Washington Post and other outlets a dossier of quotes from Fauci designed to raise doubts about his expertise by showing he downplayed the severity of the disease in the early stages of the outbreak. But those comments, such as saying the coronavirus was unlikely to be spread by asymptomatic people, were made when less was known about the virus.
By criticizing the CDC’s own guidance for school reopening, and sidelining the government’s top infectious disease expert, Trump is sending a confusing message to Americans during a time of crisis, experts said.
“At a time like this, the president needs his top health officials to be sending out the most powerful public health messages possible and his role should be to support them, not to undercut them,” said Howard Koh, the former assistant secretary for health under President Obama. “These actions only serve to further disrupt and distract a public that needs to continue to focus solely on conquering this virus.”
Trump brushed off the conflict on Monday, telling reporters his relationship with Fauci was good. “I find him to be a very nice person,” he said. “I don’t always agree with him.”
The White House has dismissed concerns about the surge in cases, saying the focus should be on the death count, which has ticked up in July but is far below its April peak, when more than 2,000 people were dying per day.
Fauci called the lower death rates a “false narrative” on a Facebook Live appearance last week and warned: “Don’t get yourself into false complacency.” Death rates tend to lag rising case counts by several weeks, and even though the average age of infected people is lower than in the spring, experts are concerned those younger people will infect older and more vulnerable people.
As Trump continues to train his focus away from the unfolding coronavirus crisis, one of his own former top aides raised the alarm Monday, writing an op-ed about how COVID-19 testing is still woefully inadequate. “I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem in this country,” wrote Mick Mulvaney, who was replaced as acting White House chief of staff in March. “My son was tested recently; we had to wait 5 to 7 days for results. My daughter wanted to get tested before visiting her grandparents, but was told she didn’t qualify. That is simply inexcusable at this point in the pandemic.”
Stephen Moore, a member of the White House’s economic task force, said Trump focuses less on the public health crisis posed by coronavirus because he is more interested in juicing the economy. “He’s so focused on the big problem, which is getting the economy up and running and trying to get businesses up on their feet,” Moore said. “That’s been their number one priority.”
Nikolas Guggenberger, executive director of the Yale Information Society Project, said he believes Trump has tried to hedge his bets with his communication about COVID-19. At times, he makes statements that warn people to take the virus seriously, and at other times, he has waved away the danger of the virus and falsely insisted it is disappearing or even winked at conspiracy theories, as he did with his Monday tweet suggesting a cabal of doctors want to stop his reelection.
On Monday, for example, Trump praised himself for eventually embracing the social distancing measures touted by his public health experts. “We saved millions of lives when we did the initial closure,” Trump said. “We would have lost 2 million, 3 million lives had we not done it.”
Guggenberger sees this as strategic: If the virus fades before the election, he can claim he was trying to get the economy going while Democrats overreacted. If the virus is still raging, he can point to his eventual — though half-hearted —embrace of masks or other preventive measures.
“The tragedy is that this is an election strategy that literally kills people,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Howard Koh’s first name.