At the daily White House press briefing, Trump repeatedly alluded to the idea that the United States needs to avoid letting the novel coronavirus destroy the economy and suggested it could be dealt with at the same time that certain parts of the economy are restarted.
“We’re going to be opening our country up for business because our country was meant to be open,” Trump said. He added at another point that he thought he would be opening things up in weeks rather than months.
Trump repeatedly said the United States “can do two things at one time.” He added that certain “parts of our country are very lightly affected” and named states with comparatively few cases.
Perhaps Trump’s most illustrative comments, though, came when he was asked whether this was something that the medical professionals around him had signed off on. Trump said he consults with those experts, including Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who was absent from the briefing after offering comments somewhat critical of Trump in an interview released Sunday night.
But he suggested that what the doctors want might be too onerous.
“If it were up to the doctors, they may say: ‘Let’s keep it shut down. Let’s shut down the entire world’ — because, again, you’re up to almost 150 countries [with coronavirus cases] — ‘so let’s shut down the entire world. And when we shut it down, that would be wonderful. And let’s keep it shut for a couple of years,’ ” Trump said, adding: “You know, you can’t do that. And you can’t do that with a country — especially the No. 1 economy in the world, by far.”
Pressed on why, Trump said because “it causes bigger problems than the original.”
Trump was asked again whether any of the doctors on his team had endorsed this approach, and he said they hadn’t.
“Not endorsed. We talked together, and I think they’re okay with it, and I’m okay with it,” Trump said. “But this could be a much bigger problem. This could create a much bigger problem than the problem that you start off with.”
Another revealing exchange on this point came when Birx was asked about Trump’s claim that he thought the doctors “were okay with it.” Birx declined to directly respond.
“What the president has asked to do is to assemble all the data and give him our best medical recommendation based on all the data,” Birx said. “That’s what he’s asked us to do.”
When Birx was pressed on whether she would be okay with reopening the economy after the current 15-day period ends a week from now, she said, “I don’t like to — I will never speculate on data. I will have to see the data to really understand.”
Trump was also asked later whether Fauci agreed about his desire to reopen the economy, and he said Fauci “doesn’t not agree.”
Pressed on whether he’ll take Fauci’s recommendation on reopening the economy, Trump was again noncommittal: “I would certainly — he’s very important to me, and we’ll be listening to him. I’ll be listening to Deborah, who you just spoke to. I’ll be listening to other experts. We have a lot of people that are very good at this. And ultimately, it’s a balancing act.”
To a large extent, Trump is right. All presidents have to take the advice of experts and make decisions about areas in which they may not be experts themselves. But Trump has consistently offered a much more optimistic tone on the coronavirus than those same experts. And the strict measures used to contain the outbreak have been hailed — including by Trump — as being necessary to prevent a public health crisis in which hospitals are overwhelmed with patients and the system breaks down.
In other words, there is significant reason to believe Trump may not fully appreciate the scope of the potential fallout, especially given his repeated comments downplaying the threat before that posture was abandoned a week ago.
Trump from the start has signaled that he’s as much or more concerned about the stock market and the economy, and the economy is a legitimate concern. What Monday’s briefing drove home, though, is that Trump won’t necessarily be deferring to his medical professionals when he makes that life-or-death decision. And to hear the lack of expressed support from Birx and Trump’s carefully worded comments about how Fauci feels really says it all when it comes to who’s backing this move.
Trump’s comments about how doctors would want to “shut down the entire world” are another example of his long-standing skepticism of experts.
Update: Trump continued tweeting Tuesday morning in a way that suggesting he would prefer to begin re-opening the economy. He retweeted Ann Coulter quoting a report that suggested the coronavirus death rate could be lower than 1 percent. Fauci has previously said that 1 percent is on the lower end of the estimates and that the coronavirus is 10 times as deadly as the flu.