Monday’s daily White House briefing on the coronavirus was very much in tone with all of the others: Lots of upbeat, boastful remarks of how far the administration has come in fighting the pandemic — overshadowing some disconcerting warnings that the worst is likely to come.
Most of the reporters at the press conference were spaced out in socially safe distances in the Rose Garden on the unseasonably warm day, and some of the journalists again proved to be Trump’s favorite foils, raining on the parade of good news he had to tell about the rising availability of coronavirus testing.
At the start of the briefing, Trump declared that the U.S. had passed the 1 million mark in tests performed — a milestone, he noted, that was more than any other country.
But Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour, questioned why the U.S. was still not testing as many people per capita as other countries like South Korea.
“Why is that, and when do you think that number will be on par with other countries?” she asked.
Trump answered, “I know South Korea better than anybody. It is very tight. You know how many people are in Seoul? Do you know how big the city of Seoul is? 38 million people. That is bigger than anything we have. Thirty-eight million people all tightly wound together. We have vast farmland. We have vast areas where they don’t have much of a problem. In some cases they have no problem whatsoever.” [The population of Seoul is closer to 10 million].
He then repeated that the U.S. has done “more tests by far than any country in the world.” “I’m not talking about per capita,” he said, adding that “our testing is also better than any country in the world.”
And then he expressed his annoyance with Alcindor.
“Rather than asking a question like that, you should congratulate the people who have done this testing,” he said.
He pointed to a recently developed five-minute test from Abbott Laboratories, and also praised Roche for their progress in producing kits.
“You should be saying congratulations instead of asking a really snarky question, because I know exactly what you mean by that,” Trump said.
He then ended the briefing.
Alcindor is the same reporter who Trump criticized on Sunday, when he called one of her questions “threatening.” She had been asking Trump about his doubts, expressed on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Thursday, that some state governors needed all the ventilators that they had been requesting.
With regular airplay on the cable news networks and sometimes on broadcast TV, the briefings have been a sizable ratings draw, as Trump noted Sunday. But as the crisis drags on, there is increasing consternation in the journalism community over whether the briefings should be aired live, along with plenty of criticism among the president’s detractors that the events have become too heavy in rally-like victory laps.
In fact, CNN cut away from Monday’s briefing as Trump called up a selection of corporate CEOs offering assistance to the coronavirus relief effort, including the CEO of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, who said that his firm is manufacturing cotton face masks. His company is a well-recognized sponsor on Fox News and Lindell is a longtime Trump booster. Other corporate chieftains went to the lectern and praised Trump; Lindell said that “God gave us grace on November 8, 2016 to change the course we are on.” Lindell himself may be on a new course: During the event, Politico reported that Trump has told Lindell that he wants him to run for governor of Minnesota in 2022.
To little surprise, Trump sparred with Jim Acosta, this time as CNN’s chief White House correspondent asked the president what he would say to Americans who are upset with the way he “downplayed this crisis over the past couple of months.” Acosta then read some of Trump’s quotes back to him, including “We have it very much under control in this country. It is very much under control. It is going to disappear. It is like a miracle. It will disappear.” Acosta listed others.
“If you look at those individual statements, they are all true,” Trump insisted. “Stay calm. It will go away. You know it is going away? And it will go away and we will have a great victory. And it is people like you and CNN that say things like that — it is why people just don’t want to listen to CNN anymore. You could ask a normal question. The statements I made are I want to keep the country calm. I don’t want panic in the country. I could cause panic much better than even you. It would make you look like a minor league player.”
He went on, before telling Acosta, “Instead of asking a nasty, snarky question like that, you should ask a real question, and other than that, I am going to go to somebody else.”
About an hour later, CNN said that there were 502 coronavirus deaths reported Monday in the U.S., the most of any day since the crisis began. Medical experts on the coronavirus task force say that the total deaths could range between 100,000-200,000 if “we do things together well,” as the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, told Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie earlier in the day. Guthrie was surprised that the six-figure death toll is the optimistic scenario.
In the otherwise upbeat atmosphere of the Rose Garden briefing, there was reference made to family members of those who have already died from the coronavirus — gestures that are either lost or not mentioned at all in the rather chaotic atmospheres of the nightly briefings. It came when Trump called to the lectern Seema Verna, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and directed her to tell the press how “positive” it has been.
Verna did, but she started her remarks by saying, “I want to convey my deepest sympathies to all those who lost loved ones due to the coronavirus.”
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