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During his first coronavirus briefing in a very long time on Tuesday, Donald Trump successfully posed as a president who was willing to acknowledge at least some of the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” explained Trump, who has repeatedly and recently insisted that the coronavirus would “disappear” (including again during the briefing Q&A on Tuesday). Trump added that his it-will-get-worse prognosis was “something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.” He also recommended that Americans wear face masks without simultaneously downplaying their effectiveness — another departure from his previous remarks. “Get a mask,” the notoriously mask-averse president said on Tuesday. “Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They will have an effect and we need everything we can get.”
Trump appeared alone at the briefing, carefully reading a sober prepared statement before taking some questions from the press. No members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx, took part. (The sidelined task force has only given one briefing in months.) Earlier Tuesday, Fauci — who has recently faced attacks from the White House and the president for continuing to be a voice of reason and caution about COVID-19 — told CNN he had not been invited to take part in the briefing. When Trump was asked by reporter about the absence of Fauci and Birx, Trump claimed that Birx was standing outside the briefing room in the hall. Earlier Tuesday, Reuters reported that, “Physicians on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, particularly its coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, are frustrated that warnings about rising cases are being ignored, and dismayed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the renowned U.S. infectious disease expert, has been demeaned and disparaged, officials said.”
Indeed, the president’s attempt at a new tone has followed not just a horrifying surge of U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths and ongoing economic malaise since many states began prematurely reopening in May, but also reports that some of his advisers and allies have been trying to convince him that his mishandling of COVID-19 was a big-time political loser among the American electorate. Indeed, the resumption of his daily coronavirus press briefings seems unlikely to be solely — or primarily — about good public-health outcomes: Trump suggested on Monday that he was returning to the podium because he expected the daily briefings to get good television ratings, while Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has boosted the briefings as a way for Trump to gain back some of his losses in opinion polls.
On Monday, Trump tweeted that mask-wearing was “patriotic,” adding that, “There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!” But in a brutal new interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace that aired Sunday, Trump tried to have it both ways on the issue, saying that masks “are good” right after hedging that public-health experts had at one point recommended against them, that “masks cause problems, too,” and that he didn’t agree with CDC director Robert Redfield’s announcement that if everybody wore a mask, the U.S. could quickly gain control over coronavirus transmission. And that was just one of the many troubling answers Trump gave regarding the pandemic during the interview.
Still, in parts of that interview, and on Monday and Tuesday, there have been signs of glacial progress in Trump’s public stance on the pandemic — whatever the motive is for that.
But while Trump made some helpful public statements during his briefing on Tuesday, including asking young people not to congregate at bars and emphasizing that masks should be worn whenever Americans are not able to practice social distancing, he also offered more false statements too. He again falsely claimed that America’s COVID-19 fatality rate was lower than “almost everywhere else in the world” — when it’s actually the tenth highest among nations that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. He also claimed that no governor “needs anything right now” from the federal government — two governors have said the opposite within just the last 24 hours. Trump also refused to back additional federal funding for coronavirus testing amid the contentious current debate, even within his own party, over a much-needed second stimulus package for Americans.
But Trump deserves credit for not veering wildly off the topic of the coronavirus and successfully reading his prepared remarks, even though he subsequently contradicted some of them in the Q&A. In fact, the only real digression was prompted by a reporter when they asked Trump for his thoughts about Ghislaine Maxwell, who currently awaits trial for her alleged role in helping all-around monster Jeffrey Epstein — who was friends with Trump — procure underage girls for a sex ring. Trump bizarrely confirmed how often he had hung out with Maxwell and said, “I wish her well, frankly.”
This post has been updated. It originally said that the coronavirus task force has not held a briefing in months; in fact it has given one briefing over that time.