At one moment in President Donald Trump’s coronavirus briefing on Monday, he was asked about reports that some states saw a spike in poison control calls after Trump suggested last week that perhaps human ingestion of disinfectants would be a way of combating the coronavirus.
“I can’t imagine why,” Trump said, as he tried to move on to the next question.
When Playboy‘s Brian Karem pressed him on whether he takes responsibility for it, Trump said, “No, I don’t.”
After a weekend of reports that the White House was looking to scale back the coronavirus briefing, and Trump’s own tweet saying they were not “worth the time & effort,” the president was again back before the media.
Although this was billed as a press conference vs. an official coronavirus task force briefing, there actually was nothing different. The subject was the same. Members of the task force were there — though Dr. Anthony Fauci was again missing. And, although there were not the same flare ups with reporters, there was little to suggest that this was a new tone for Trump.
As MSNBC’s Brian Williams told viewers afterward, the event was billed as a “news conference on reopening of the country and testing,” but the president “got into the same familiar pattern we’ve seen day after day after day of taking questions from and answering and sparring with journalists.”
The White House had indicated that changes were afoot to the nightly events, which have drawn sizable audiences and also allowed Trump to command the bully pulpit in the midst of a national emergency. But the president’s suggestions about disinfectants — which he later said was a note of sarcasm — has drawn ridicule and, more seriously, genuine concern that members of the public would ingest household cleaning products. The makers of Clorox and Lysol each issued warnings in the wake of his remarks on Thursday.
Moreover, recent polls have shown rising dissatisfaction with Trump’s response to the pandemic, after an initial rally around the leader in the midst of a national emergency.
Tim Naftali, presidential historian for CNN and clinical associate professor of history at New York University, said that “I always believed that the most damning response to a political leader is ridicule.”
Trump’s disinfectant comments were the subject of late night humor and social media memes, but Naftali also said that there is a potentially tragic side to the remarks.
“You have to step away from the media analysis and remind everybody that some people are taking what he says quite literally and will do what the president suggests,” Naftali said.
Earlier on Monday, it looked as if the briefings were in for some retooling, or that the president would scale them back altogether. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said a briefing on Monday’s schedule would be canceled. While more were planned for later in the week, they may have “a new look to them. A new focus to them,” she said.
Then, early on Monday afternoon, Trump’s appearance before the media was back on.
The focus of Monday’s press conference was on testing, and the administration’s plans to dramatically scale it up through the month of May. This was reinforced when Trump called up a parade of CEOs to talk about their own plans to assist, either through the production of badly needed supplies or to make their own tests available to the public. The White House also unveiled a testing blueprint, designed to guide states as they begin to reopen their economies.
“The testing is not going to be a problem at all,” Trump said, noting that the U.S. was well ahead of any other country in tests performed.
In the new plan, all 50 states would receive enough tests each month to screen 2% of their population. The responsibility, however, falls to the states to implement. The White House released a checklist outlining seven key actions they have taken to scale up testing capacity, with a yet to be completed eighth item — to “coordinate with governors to support testing plans and rapid response programs.”
Even with the upbeat pronouncements, some reporters still questioned past promises that have been made and for more specifics about the current plans. ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jon Karl noted that in a previous briefing on March 13, also held in the White House Rose Garden, where companies like Walmart also talked up the coming availability of drive-through testing.
“By my count, only 69 drive through test sites have been set up by the companies that were here,” Karl said. He also noted that Vice President Mike Pence said in early March “we said we would be at 4 million tests by the following week. We just now got there in the last few days.”
Karl asked the Vice President, “What have you learned about what went wrong …over the last month and a half or two months and what is going to go right now? What lessons have you learned?”
Pence responded, “I appreciate the question, but it represents a misunderstanding on your part and frankly a lot of people in the public’s part in the difference between having a test versus the ability to process a test.”
More critical was a question asked by Olivia Nuzzi, correspondent for New York magazine, who asked Trump whether he deserved to be reelected given the death toll from coronavirus is now close to that of the number of Americans who died in Vietnam.
The question has particular significance as media outlets begin to break down just how the president has used his time at the briefings, whether through genuine medical information or his own boasts. The Washington Post reported that over the past three weeks, Trump has spoken for 13 hours at the briefings, but has spent just 4 1/2 minutes expressing condolences for the victims of the virus.
Unlike some previous briefings, Trump didn’t lash out at the questioner. “We’ve lost a lot of people, but it you look at what a lot of original projections were, 2.2 million, we are probably heading to 60,000, 70,000. One person is too many for this,” he said.
He then went on to some of his familiar talking points: his decision to restrict travel from China, the performance of Vice President Mike Pence, complaints that the media was not talking about the progress they have made on supplying ventilators.
Then he went back to the death toll.
“One person is too many,” Trump said again, before ending the press conference.