Trump has been the driving force behind the shift — declining to wear a mask, dismissing the threat of a second wave and pushing governors to reopen their economies right away. On Friday, he sought to put a positive spin on the rising death totals, saying that his actions had saved upward of 2 million lives.
Several economic aides stood next to Trump during the celebratory news conference. None wore masks. The administration’s public health officials, who have repeatedly broken with Trump’s optimistic messaging by warning that the virus continues to pose a major threat to the country, were not present.
Later Friday, Trump stopped by Puritan Medical Products, a Maine-based producer of medical swabs used in coronavirus testing. During a week in which the president’s public schedule included visiting multiple religious sites, speeding up the permitting process and cracking down on nationwide protests against racial discrimination, Friday’s trip was his first event specifically focused on the coronavirus response.
The morning news conference marked a sharp contrast from the kinds of events that were common at the White House just two months ago, when members of the president’s coronavirus task force regularly briefed the public on the government’s response to the crisis.
Medical experts on the task force, which Trump considered disbanding last month before reversing course, have made few public appearances in recent weeks. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, has not spoken publicly at the White House since April 29. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task force coordinator, has also been a scarce presence in recent weeks after the daily prime-time coronavirus news briefings ended in April.
Brett Giroir, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus testing response, said this week that he will soon return to his role at Department of Health and Human Services.
With the coronavirus continuing to kill thousands of Americans each week, public health models forecast that more than 130,000 in the United States will have died by the end of June.
Public health experts say the eagerness to reopen without safeguards is sending the wrong message to Americans.
“They’re not leading the public to be hypervigilant about what are very real possibilities. They’re abdicating the role of pushing people to be prepared,” J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the administration. “They seem to have walked away from all of this.”
The coronavirus task force has met far less frequently in recent weeks, and much of the work is now being done at the agency level, rather than at the White House, according to senior administration officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The large coronavirus task force meetings that took place at the White House in March and April have been replaced by smaller groups of aides huddling to discuss vaccines and issues raised by governors, officials said.
In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Fauci said he had not met with or spoken to the president in two weeks and said their contact had become much less frequent. Fauci said the last time he interacted with the president was on May 18, after Trump asked Fauci to provide medical context during a teleconference with governors, according to CNN.
Trump has used his public appearances to push for the reopening of businesses and the relaxation of public health restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. He also has focused on other issues, including border security, the policies of social media companies and unsubstantiated claims that former government officials spied on his campaign.
Democrats, including former vice president Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, have criticized Trump’s coronavirus response as slow and unfocused.
The White House defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic, saying he was balancing the many duties of the office admirably.
“President Trump continues to lead the Nation through this unprecedented pandemic, including expedited vaccine development and responsibly reopening our economy, while also taking decisive action to restore law and order to our streets and ensure justice,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “Getting the Nation back to work, back to sporting events, back to churches, back to restaurants, and doing so safely and responsibly is the President’s shared goal with Governors and the private sector, but the cure cannot be worse than the disease.”
But Trump’s messaging is at odds with that of public health experts who have warned that the virus could continue to spread rapidly if Americans do not wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid large crowds. Trump’s public mentions of the coronavirus have declined by two-thirds since April, and only a few dozen of his several hundred tweets in recent weeks have been about the pandemic, according to Factba.se, a data analytics company.
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a House panel Thursday that the virus continues to pose a threat to the country.
“We’re very concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating,” he said, referring to guidance on wearing masks and keeping six feet apart as part of social distancing.
The White House rejected an opportunity to reinforce that public health message during the Friday news conference, moving reporters’ chairs close together. Jonathan Karl, an ABC News reporter and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said the decision to defy social distancing in the Rose Garden “needlessly put reporters’ health at risk.”
Deere, the White House spokesman, took responsibility for moving the chairs closer, saying, “It looks better.”
Trump spoke favorably about the proximity of the reporters, pointing to it as a sign of progress.
“Even you, I notice that you’re starting to get much closer together,” he told reporters Friday. “Looks much better, I must say. Not all the way there yet but you’ll be there soon.”
The president has said that he does not like the appearance of socially distant crowds, and has threatened to pull the Republican National Convention out of North Carolina because the governor could not guarantee that the August event could take place without social distancing.
In a phone call last week, Trump told Gov. Roy Cooper (D) that he would accept his party’s nomination in an arena filled with cheering supporters, coronavirus pandemic or not.
“I don’t want to be sitting in a place that’s 50 percent empty,” Trump said, according to two people familiar with the call who spoke about it on the condition of anonymity.
The president and some of his top political aides have minimized the threat of another wave of infections in the fall that could be even more disastrous than what the nation has endured in recent months because it would coincide with the seasonal flu outbreak. Health officials, as well as some White House officials, however, mostly expect another wave and are taking steps at the agency level to prepare for such a possibility.
Some White House aides, eager to move past the coronavirus crisis, have viewed recent nationwide protests as a good opportunity for Trump to show that he is a president of law and order, said a former senior administration official who still frequently works with the White House.
“Showing he’s a law-and-order president is good for his base,” the official said.
But some officials this week have worried that the mass demonstrations will create new outbreaks or upticks in cases, three people familiar with the discussions said. Birx and Fauci have confided to colleagues that they fear a resurgence of cases in large cities with protests, said two senior administration officials. One senior administration official said they are monitoring the caseloads in cities such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Beset by low poll numbers just five months before facing voters in the November election, Trump has been dismissive of the coronavirus in conversations with his political aides, senior administration officials said. He has pushed to return to the campaign trail with packed rallies, even as most states continue to ban mass social gatherings.
Vice President Pence, who led the coronavirus task force and had said the outbreak would largely be over by Memorial Day, is looking to do more non-coronavirus travel and events in the coming weeks, said a person familiar with the planning.
In recent days, Trump has held more meetings about his campaign, the economy, foreign policy and other topics than about the coronavirus, aides said. One administration official said Trump speaks to Pence multiple times a day, and receives briefings about the pandemic response.
Many Democrats also have begun to focus on other topics. This week, Biden gave remarks about issues including racial inequality, police brutality and the economy — reflecting some of the subjects that have dominated the news despite the pandemic’s continued toll.
Trump’s allies pointed out that some Democratic leaders who had previously called for social distancing have vocally supported mass protests in which people are staying close to one another.
Trump and top White House aides are still eager for updates on progress toward a vaccine, recognizing that that is key to making the public feel safe about resuming normal activities.
Even as the White House has turned its attention elsewhere and Trump insists it is safe to reopen, many states are experiencing increases in cases or plateaus. But because there were dire warnings in March that health systems would be overrun and that largely did not happen, top Trump officials argue that their mitigation efforts have been effective and that hospitals now know how to handle a rise in cases, such as by opening up more beds by canceling elective surgeries and other procedures.
One former senior administration official still in touch with the White House said Trump’s disengagement from the day-to-day coronavirus response may end up being a positive development.
“It’s maybe for the better that Trump isn’t asking for briefings, because you can let the departments and agencies do their jobs without all of the interference,” the official said. “In this case, it may be for the better.”