White House signals eagerness to get past coronavirus crisis
President Trump is trying to return to business as usual amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, who has supplanted his daily coronavirus task force briefings for more controlled and structured appearances, is eager to get past the public health crisis that has dominated the news cycle since the end of February and allow businesses and American life to return to normal.
The president will spend the weekend at Camp David, marking his first occasion venturing outside of the White House since the end of March. On Tuesday, he plans to travel to Arizona to visit a Honeywell facility that produces N95 masks.
Trump is also scheduled to participate in a two-hour Fox News town hall focused on the theme “America Together: Returning to Work” on Sunday, an event that is billed as a virtual appearance but will be staged at the Lincoln Memorial.
His shift in behavior coincides with a concerted push from the White House to encourage Americans to get back to work and states to look for ways to safely lift restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Republican strategists say a more structured schedule could benefit Trump, so long as controversies are kept to a minimum.
“You see the president doing kind of the normal business of a president,” Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, said of Trump’s upcoming trip to Arizona.
“Those are images that people will see and that can register. The challenge is going to be, if the conversation is, ‘everyone was wearing a face mask but the president,’ that can take away from that.”
Advisers urged Trump for weeks to cut back on his appearances at coronavirus task force press briefings, warning that his fights with reporters, demands for credit and at-times confounding statements were hurting him politically.
But the message didn’t seem to get through until the president on camera suggested that people might want to inject disinfectants as a coronavirus treatment, remarks that were widely mocked and ridiculed.
The president has since given up the briefings for extended question-and-answer sessions with a more limited press pool, and more scripted events.
Trump met this week with the governors of Florida, Louisiana and New Jersey. During an East Room event, he highlighted small businesses that received government aid. And he met Friday in the Oval Office with Gilead executives to discuss a drug that showed promise against coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the virus, which is still killing hundreds of Americans every day, has been reduced to just one of many topics covered when the president holds court with the media.
On Thursday alone, Trump spoke to the press for about 55 minutes. He fielded questions about the fate of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sexual assault allegations against former vice president Joe Biden.
Health officials like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are now spotted as frequently on television and in Oval Office meetings as economic aides like Larry Kudlow and Kevin Hassett, further signaling that Trump may be looking to transition away from the public health aspect of the crisis.
“They are sidelining public health because public health, I think they perceive, gets in the way of the back to work message,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “I think that’s a grave mistake. I think public health and economics are not in tension; they’re actually synergistic.”
Heye argued, alternatively, that the administration’s decision to curtail the briefings hasn’t reduced the availability of public health officials, noting Fauci’s frequent media appearances — including an interview with Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman this week.
“Fauci has been everywhere,” Heye said. “You can’t get more out there than Fauci has been.”
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Friday that the White House allows news of the day to guide its messaging strategy, but that “Americans are looking to reopening the country.”
Trump’s optimistic pronouncements and those of his top officials have at times cut against the reality of the situation on the ground. Many states are staging slow and gradual reopenings even before meeting federal criteria intended to guide those decisions, raising the specter that places like Georgia will see a spike in cases in the coming weeks.
Trump himself has publicly chastised Georgia for its reopening plan, which included opening nail salons and tattoo parlors, while at the same time publicly backing protests against stay-at-home orders in states governed by Democrats.
Health experts say even if the reopenings go smoothly, some degree of social distancing will need to remain in place until there is a vaccine for the virus. Consumers may be reluctant to resume their usual activities as a result, diminishing the prospect of a quick economic recovery.
Even so, the president already has his eye on getting back to normal in the days and weeks ahead.
Trump told reporters this week that he hoped to restart his jam-packed rallies before the 2020 November election, a sign of his eagerness to get back onto the campaign trail with the same vigor as before despite looming risks. The campaign of his presumptive Democratic foe, Biden, has also started to weigh outings for their candidate as Trump discusses a return to the trail.
“I hope that we’re going to be able to do some good, old-fashioned, 25,000-person rallies, where everyone is going wild because they love our country,” Trump told reporters Wednesday.
Trump will deliver a commencement address at West Point on June 13 which officials say will take place in a “safety bubble,” with hundreds of cadets subjected to rigorous screening before participating in the graduation ceremony. And he said Friday he plans to travel to South Dakota to view the fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on July 3.