WASHINGTON — A somewhat chastened President Trump on Tuesday delivered his first coronavirus briefing in nearly three months, returning to a forum he previously used to dominate the airwaves — and to spread sunny predictions and even misinformation — as he faces a virus that shows little sign of letting up.
“It’ll probably get worse before it gets better, something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is,” Trump said, appearing to read off a sheet of prepared remarks and striking a decidedly more somber tone than during his freewheeling briefings that ended in late April.
Moments later, however, Trump seemed to return to the wishful thinking he’s offered repeatedly, when he again claimed the virus will simply “disappear.”
The briefing, which Trump vowed to repeat “quite often,” was a belated acknowledgement from the president of the continued severity of the coronavirus outbreak and a faltering response that has caused his poll numbers to crater. With new cases piling up in record numbers and more than 144,000 Americans killed by a pandemic that many other industrialized nations have largely brought to heel, Trump broke from his weeks-long stance of largely ignoring the crisis while continuing to urge states to open their economies.
The president went further than usual Tuesday in acknowledging the reality of the surging virus, urging young people to avoid bars and — crucially — calling on all Americans to wear masks when they cannot socially distance. He even took a folded mask out of his pocket and held it up, although he never put it on at the briefing. That marks a big contrast from the kind of behavior Trump encouraged late last month, when he packed in-person events in Oklahoma and Arizona where masks were not required, as well as sharing a false conspiracy theory on Twitter that doctors are “lying” about the virus to impede his reelection.
But the president did not put forward any new plans or initiatives to combat the virus Tuesday, such as a national testing plan clamored for by many public health experts. He carved out moments for self-congratulation and racist tropes, praising the “tremendous moves” he made to stop COVID-19 and frequently calling the disease the “China virus.”
He also made news on an entirely different topic when he told a reporter, in response to a question about Ghislaine Maxwell, the criminally charged associate of Jeffrey Epstein. Trump said he wishes her well — a friendly greeting to someone accused of enticing minors to engage in illegal sex acts — suggesting he is not so disciplined as to fully avoid venturing back into the territory that made the briefings a liability for him in the first place.
As the president spoke, he highlighted positive news about vaccine research and the USresponse, and he sought to spin some statistics as favorably as possible.
“The fact is, many countries are suffering,” Trump said. “We’ve done much better than most and with the fatality rate at a lower rate than most.” (The United States has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per 100,000 people in the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.)
Significantly, Trump was the sole speaker at the briefing, even though public health experts have urged him to put scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci front and center, and to allow his administration to level with the public about the virus’s resurgent spread since he last stepped to the podium for a similar briefing on April 27.
“The fact that briefings stopped sent the unspoken message that the pandemic is behind us, when nothing could be further from the truth,” Howard Koh, who was assistant secretary for health for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, said before the briefing. “Presenting those facts in an unflinching way would signal the administration’s willingness to confront the hard truth.”
Some 84,000 people have died of the virus since Trump’s last briefing, when he said he thought his administration had done a “great job” responding to the crisis.
“We are far worse off than we were back then,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins’s school of public health. “We haven’t meaningfully changed things. We’ve expanded the number of people who can get tested since March but the virus has outpaced those efforts.”
Trump’s return to the podium may reflect the hostile political environment he faces as much as the worrisome case count, which has been rising for weeks. Since his last briefing, Trump’s average approval rating has dropped from nearly 46 percent to 42 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, while a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found only 38 percent of voters approve of his COVID-19 response, compared to 51 percent in late March. Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who is besting Trump in head-to-head polls, has excoriated Trump’s virus response in campaign ads and in speeches.
“The ratings are down, so what do you do? You do something midseason to get the ratings turned around,” said Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee. “He’s coming back out onto the podium not because he has some renewed learning or understanding about the dangers of COVID-19 but because he’s losing to Joe Biden by 12 points.”
Sarah Longwell, of the group Republican Voters Against Trump, has been holding focus groups with people who voted for Trump in 2016. She said even they were eager for a shift in approach on the pandemic.
“People do not trust Donald Trump on the coronavirus, they trust Dr. Fauci,” Longwell said. She added, “They don’t want Donald Trump’s reality show.”
Trump, a former reality TV star, certainly seemed keenly attuned to the viewership possibilities of a return to the briefings as he spoke with reporters in the Oval Office on Monday.
“We had a lot of people watching — record numbers watching. In the history of cable television — television, there’s never been anything like it,” he said.
His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, trying to build suspense during Tuesday morning’s press briefing, declined to tell reporters whether public health experts from the coronavirus task force would join Trump at the briefing. “You’ll have to tune in to see,” she said.
Trump had used his frequent briefings in March and April to paint a rosy picture about a nation that he said had “prevailed” over testing shortages and was ready to reopen — as well as to deliver scientifically inaccurate statements like his widely mocked suggestion that injecting disinfectant into humans could stop the virus.
Trump tweeted in late April that the daily briefings were “not worth the time & effort.” He appeared before the press a few more times, but without the regularity of before, and eventually stopped doing virus briefings altogether.
In recent weeks, Trump has studiously avoided the topic of coronavirus, even as states key to his reelection like Florida, Arizona, and Texas began posting record numbers of infections.
Trump has frequently pushed false theories that the nation’s growing caseloads are due to an increase in testing and not the increased spread of the disease. In fact, a STAT analysis shows cases are surging beyond the increase in testing in 26 states, as daily case counts routinely top 70,000 after temporarily falling to 20,000 per day after the April peak. Deaths are also creeping up, with 5,200 people dying from the virus last week, the second straight week of increased mortality.
In a widely panned Fox News interview on Sunday, he appeared to downplay the virus again, dismissing many of the new cases as not serious.
“Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day,” he said. “They have the sniffles.”
More than 800 or 900 people were reported to have died of the virus multiple days last week.
Political strategists are unconvinced that returning to the podium will help the president boost his reelection chances.
“I think it’s fair to say that this election will be a referendum on how the president has responded to this pandemic and how he proposes to move forward from it,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2008. “I don’t see room given the current polling out there for the president to turn it around.”