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Trump meets harsh reality with coronavirus threat

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE’s flirtation with disbanding the White House coronavirus task force is just the latest reflection of his eagerness to put the coronavirus pandemic behind him and turn his focus to the economy.

Yet Trump’s eagerness to move on keeps running into reality.

The idea of disbanding the coronavirus task force was quickly abandoned; Trump said he got calls from “very respected people” who said it would be better to keep it open.

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In March, Trump publicly pined for a reopening of the economy by Easter Sunday.

He was forced to quickly backtrack as cases and deaths rose, and he eventually approved an extension of federal social distancing guidelines that recommended people stay home until the end of April. 

Trump said he would decide when things open at one point before bowing to the fact that it would be governors and local officials making the calls for their states.

The frequent shifts lay bare Trump’s predicament, underscoring the limits of the president’s ability to bend timetables surrounding the pandemic to his will. Even as governors lift restrictions, a return to economic life depends on businesses deciding to open their doors and customers deciding to enter.

“He doesn’t have a PR problem. He has a pandemic problem. He can talk about reopening the economy all he wants, but a lot of businesses aren’t going to reopen as long as there is a health crisis,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former communications director for Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Rubio signals opposition to Biden Cabinet picks MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

Trump has rhetorically bulldozed other threats to his presidency.

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He repeatedly claimed the Russia investigation was a “hoax” and later claimed “total exoneration” despite former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE not reaching a conclusion on whether he obstructed the probe. He repeated that the phone call with the Ukrainian president that led to his impeachment was “perfect” dozens of times to try and shape the narrative around the proceedings.

Such methods also have worked for Trump. His approval numbers reached a high point following his acquittal in an impeachment trial by the GOP-controlled Senate. 

But this approach might have hit its limits with the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump spent January and February saying the virus was under control and would “disappear,” only to claim in March he always felt it would be a pandemic once it became clear the disease was not going away.

As the cases in the U.S. mounted, Trump predicted the death toll would settle somewhere around 60,000, guided by a White House-favored University of Washington model that has repeatedly adjusted up its death toll projections. The number of fatalities has continued to climb, blowing past that figure last week and forcing Trump to reposition his estimate at up to 100,000 American deaths.

Even allies say Trump should leave such estimates to others.

“There’s zero need for President Trump to come out and predict what ultimate death totals will be,” said Jason Miller, who served as communications director for Trump’s transition team. He said the president should serve as the face of economic recovery efforts and leave medical experts to handle models and projections that could guide his decisions.

Trump’s approval ratings on the coronavirus have taken a hit.

On April 4, more people approved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic than disapproved, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. As of Thursday, that had reversed dramatically, with 52.3 percent disapproving of Trump’s handling of the crisis in the average of polls, compared to 43.9 percent who approved.

The president has been willing to shift his views when convinced by experts, advisers and public perception.

The Easter timeline was pushed back after Deborah Birx and Anthony FauciAnthony FauciUS COVID-19 cases reach past 13 million Fauci: Pandemic likely won't improve by Christmas, New Year's Vaccine skepticism emerges as early test for Biden MORE showed him the potential consequences of lifting the social distancing guidelines too soon.

Trump has since heralded the success of the social distancing guidelines in saving hundreds of thousands of lives, pointing to the initial projection that as many as 2.2 million Americans could have died with no mitigation in place. But he’s also maintained the coronavirus cure can’t be “worse than the problem.” 

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Stephen MooreStephen MooreSunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Trump ally Stephen Moore: President 'going to leave the office triumphant' Sunday shows - Election results, coronavirus dominate headlines MORE, a conservative economist who advises the president informally, said the decision to keep the task force intact was smart given that the group is important to assure the public that health issues are being dealt with. 

“A key part of getting the economy open is to make people feel like it’s safe to go outside again and that the public health issues are being well-tended to,” said Moore, who has repeatedly made public calls for a faster reopening of businesses.

Trump has signaled that the membership of the task force could change, with individuals being added or removed as the pandemic evolves domestically. That’s seen as another sign of his drive to turn to the economy.

More than 33 million Americans have filed new claims for unemployment since mid-March, underscoring the economic hit the country has taken.

“It’s obvious the White House is eager to pivot to an economic message,” said Conant. “They don’t want to be talking about increasing deaths and confirmed case numbers. They want to be talking about how they are helping businesses reopen. The task force is very weighted towards public health issues.”

Yet reopening quickly will be difficult.

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Most polls show that a majority of Americans say they won’t resume gathering in public places or returning to normal life just because restrictions are lifted.

A number of states have not met the White House’s own guidelines for declining cases to move to an initial reopening phase, but have embarked on plans to gradually reopen their economies anyways.

Asked about that Thursday, Vice President Pence noted that the guidelines were meant to be recommendations and said he had confidence in governors implementing their plans. 

“It appears to me that states are taking a phased approach. They’re following the data, they’re following the science, and they’re implementing the kind of testing and resource assessment that is contemplated in the president’s guidelines to open up America again,” Pence told reporters. 

“We are very confident governors are moving in a responsible way,” he continued. “We’re seeing great progress across the country.”