The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump beats a retreat on opening the country as coronavirus data, images show dark reality

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump arrives at the Rose Garden on Sunday to speak at a coronavirus news conference. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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For six days straight, President Trump talked about reopening the country quickly. He wanted people filing into offices again, diners returning to restaurants and shoppers gathering at malls without fear of contagion.

Trump mused about a reopening date of April 12, picking it arbitrarily because he thought it would be beautiful to see church pews packed with parishioners on Easter. Then he dug in, seeming to tune out the nearly unanimous assessment of public health experts and governors and mayors fighting to help save lives, which was that Easter would be far too soon because the worst still was yet to come. As the self-described wartime president saw things, the novel coronavirus was a “silent enemy” and America was defeating it.

What a difference a week makes.

Trump beat a hasty retreat on Sunday, announcing from the Rose Garden just before dusk that the federal government’s stringent social distancing guidelines, set to expire on Monday, would be extended through April 30.

The latest on the coronavirus and the Trump administration’s response

More still — as the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States surpassed 2,400, nearly 1,000 of them in New York alone — the president acknowledged that the silent enemy was gaining ground.

Trump said his decision was driven by the science, but he may have been moved more by the personal — seeing body bags carried out of the hospital near his Queens boyhood home and learning that a friend was now in a coma — judging by the emotion with which he spoke about both.

Trump said he was convinced by data modeling presented to him by two physicians advising him on the pandemic — Anthony S. Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator — that the death rate in this country probably will not peak for another two weeks.

“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” Trump said at his evening news conference. “That would be the greatest loss of all.”

President Trump announced March 29 that social distancing guidelines will continue until April 30, adding that covid-19 deaths will probably peak in two weeks. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump said that his 15-day guidelines to stop the spread would be extended until the end of April, and that he would unveil on Tuesday a new strategy and a summary of data that have been collected thus far.

“We can expect that by June 1 we will be well on our way to recovery,” Trump said.

Trump strained to avoid casting his decision as a concession, claiming that his Easter timetable had been “just an aspiration” and explaining that he knows more about the coronavirus’s trajectory than he did just a week ago.

Regardless of how serious he had been when he first proposed a reopening by mid-April, Trump won praise for the delay — including from Fauci, who called it “a wise and prudent decision.”

“Dr. Birx and I spent a considerable amount of time going over all the data, why we felt this was a best choice of us, and the president accepted it,” Fauci said.

Birx said the task force reviewed 12 models of the coronavirus’s spread in the United States, and it predicted between 1.6 million and 2.2 million fatalities, a worst-case scenario, if Americans did not practice social distancing and take other mitigation measures.

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser in the Obama White House, wrote on Twitter that Trump is discovering, “You can’t spin a pandemic. People are sick. People are dying. The media is covering the grim reality of the pandemic and the government’s response, which was laggard. This enrages him.”

From accusing hospitals of wasting masks to calling a reporter "threatening," here are five contentious moments from President Trump's March 29 update. (Video: The Washington Post)

The prospect of 2 million deaths seemed to stick with Trump because he repeated the statistic 16 times at Sunday’s news conference.

But something else haunted Trump, who in the past has been moved to act by imagery, such as when he ordered strikes in Syria in 2017 after seeing pictures of children gassed by their own government.

This time, it was images of New York’s Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where the president grew up — a facility he said he knows so well that he can picture the color of its exterior walls and the size of its windows.

“I’ve been watching that for the last week on television body bags all over in hallways,” Trump said. “I have been watching them bring in trailer trucks, freezer trucks — they are freezer trucks because they can’t handle the bodies, there are so many of them. This is essentially in my community in Queens — Queens, New York. I have seen things I’ve never seen before. I mean, I’ve seen them, but I’ve seen them on television in faraway lands.”

He added, “These are trucks that are as long as the Rose Garden and they are pulling up to take out bodies, and you look inside and you see the black body bags. You say, ‘What’s in there? It’s Elmhurst Hospital, must be supplies.’ It’s not supplies; it’s people.”

Trump also may have shifted his approach to the pandemic because it is starting to touch close to home. Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trump’s closest ally on the world stage, announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. And Trump on Sunday said for the first time that a friend, whom he did not name, is struggling to fight the disease.

“He’s a little older and he’s heavy, but he’s a tough person, and he went to the hospital and a day later he’s in a coma,” Trump said. “I go, ‘How’s he doing?’ ‘Sir, he’s in a coma. He’s unconscious. He’s not doing well.’ The speed and the viciousness, especially if it gets the right person, it’s horrible. It’s really horrible.”

This was a departure from the flippant way that Trump talked about the impact of the coronavirus just last week. The president drew parallels to the seasonal flu or car crashes, arguing that both are responsible for far more tragedy than the coronavirus.

“You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about,” Trump said March 23. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars.”

But by Sunday, Trump had begun singing a different tune.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do anything, just ride it.’ They say, ‘Ride it like a cowboy. Just ride it. Ride that sucker right through,’ ” Trump said. “That’s where the 2.2 million people come in — would have died, maybe … and that’s not acceptable.”