Yet in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 55,000 Americans and claimed millions of jobs, White House officials and other informal advisers had attempted in recent days to do just that: to convince President Trump that speaking to the public about the health and medical implications of the virus is potentially too damaging to be worth the risk.
After a firestorm last week following Trump’s dangerous suggestion that injecting bleach or other disinfectants might cure the novel coronavirus, White House officials, with the president’s blessing, held no briefings over the weekend. Monday would have marked the third straight day without a formal news conference until Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, announced in a Twitter “update” that Trump would be holding one after all to discuss “additional testing guidance” to begin safely reopening the country.
“It’s like no briefing, yes briefing, no briefing, yes briefing,” said Lily Adams, an adviser to Unite the Country, a Democratic super PAC supporting former vice president Joe Biden. “The American people are on the president’s own personal emotional roller coaster that leaves them with less information, so they’re not better off.”
In coming days, aides and allies are hoping to refocus the president away from public health updates on the pandemic and instead toward talking about the economic impact — specifically how to reopen the nation and jump-start its recovery. They say that Trump, a former businessman, is both more comfortable and better suited to overseeing the economic response to the crisis.
McEnany said in an interview with Fox News on Monday that future briefings “may have a different look.”
“We’re looking at different ways to showcase this president leading,” she said.
So far, Trump has been receptive to the new economic emphasis, which his schedule in the coming days will reflect, according to a senior administration official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private discussions.
On Monday afternoon, for instance, Trump participated in a Cabinet Room meeting with retail business leaders, who then joined him for the news conference afterward.
Later this week, Trump is expected to hold other events that afford him an economic platform — meeting with small-business owners who benefited from personal protective equipment and were able to keep their employees on the payroll, for instance, and engaging with governors on reopening their states.
A team of top White House aides also has been meeting regularly for weeks to discuss laying the groundwork for an economic recovery, though they do not expect to unveil the specifics this week, the senior administration official added.
For allies of the president, and especially Republican lawmakers, any effort to limit Trump’s public health briefings — which increasingly have turned into freewheeling spectacles, laden with gripes and personal grievances — would be a welcome shift. Republicans have grown increasingly uneasy about the 2020 election, including their prospects for holding the Senate, and a 57-page memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee urges candidates to avoid defending Trump on his coronavirus response, except for his decision to restrict travel from China at the end of January.
Asked Monday whether the White House should shorten the briefings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that was “probably a good idea.”
“Certainly, what the American people are most interested in is the advice from health professionals about how to conduct their daily lives safely,” he said.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, also said he was eager for public health experts to handle the scientific portion of the briefing.
“I would say for any politician that you know, on a subject like this, you definitely want to give the experts the microphone and the platform as much as possible,” Thune said. “One of the keys of being a good leader is surrounding yourself with people who have the knowledge and expertise and can kind of talk people through what we’re going through.”
White House aides have said they expect coronavirus briefings to continue with diminished frequency and more of an economic focus. They also may no longer always occur against the backdrop of the briefing room, one official said.
But some aides and outside advisers are skeptical that Trump will steer clear of the spotlight for long. The president regularly hears from outside friends and supporters who assure him they like watching him each day, one adviser said.
And one former White House aide said he suspects Trump will chafe at the narrative that his team is trying to control him and limit his airtime — prompting him to return to regularly holding forth on a range of topics at daily news conferences.
Indeed, on Saturday, Trump tweeted that despite the “record ratings,” he had decided the news conferences were just “not worth the time & effort!” But two days later, he appeared in the Rose Garden for another one.
“Americans recognize the leadership of President Trump and appreciate hearing directly from him about the unprecedented response from his administration,” McEnany said in a statement Monday.
The Trump campaign and the president’s allies have also begun to look past the immediate health crisis toward the fall, refashioning their pitch to voters into one focused on an economic comeback.
Several of Trump’s political advisers have said that once the country moves past the worst of the health challenges posed by the coronavirus, Trump will be able to focus on the expected economic resurgence — taking credit for the jobs and wealth that return to the economy as the crisis wanes.
“Americans can see for themselves that President Trump has been leading the national response to the coronavirus and that he has two main goals: to protect the health and safety of Americans and to safeguard the economy,” said Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman. “It was under his leadership that the economy reached unprecedented heights before it was artificially interrupted, and he is clearly the one to do it a second time.”
But it’s not clear whether Trump will oversee a robust recovery before Election Day. The United States is on pace this week to exceed his rosy prediction last Monday that U.S. deaths from the virus might total no more than 60,000 — a figure far lower than some initial projections. Some of his public health advisers have said that social distancing measures might need to remain in place for months.
Still, Trump has embraced the messaging strategy, saying earlier this month that he wasn’t responsible for the arrival of the deadly virus and would take charge of reversing its devastating impact on the economy.
“We built the greatest economy in the world. I will do it a second time,” Trump said at an April 6 White House briefing.
Trump has proved largely impervious to the sorts of self-inflicted wounds that would derail just about any other politician. Yet some Republicans worry — and some Democrats hope — that Trump’s stumbles amid the pandemic could be a turning point, especially if the nation is not well on its way to recovery in November.
The president’s comments on possibly ingesting bleach to try to cure the virus, for example, were swiftly mocked and decried and provided an easy-to-understand attack against him. Speaking Sunday to CNN’s Jake Tapper, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) summed up Trump’s suggestion as “disinfectant in the body” and quipped: “You know what they call that? They call that embalming. That’s the medical term.”
Biden, who has generally refrained from falling into back-and-forth exchanges with Trump, tweeted an incredulous warning Friday: “I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach,” he wrote.
Adams, the Democratic strategist, said she appreciates what she views as Trump’s self-sabotage on a political level, but she worries from a public health perspective.
“When he is up at the podium talking about how ultraviolet light is going to cure coronavirus or how people should start drinking bleach, he’s basically writing a Democratic attack ad,” she said, “but the problem is, the public health results are completely disastrous.”
Seung Min Kim and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.