Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
President Donald Trump’s press conference in the White House Rose Garden Friday afternoon with key members of his coronavirus task force was a reassuring affair after his disastrous Oval Office address on Wednesday night. Trump offered some realistic policy prescriptions and, for the most part, showed a more somber and well-informed view of the potential threat the pandemic poses.
Let’s take some of the smart policy calls first: Trump declared a national emergency that he said would allow states and other localities to access up to $50 billion to help combat the spread of the virus.
The president and his task force also announced public-private partnerships with commercial laboratories to produce far more coronavirus tests, which will be made available at drive-in testing sites at Walgreens, Walmart and CVS. According to Dr. Deborah Birx, a task force member, these new tests could deliver results in 24 hours instead of several days. The plan to bring millions of new tests to the market sounded promising, although it wasn’t clear from the press conference exactly how soon it would be implemented.
This is all potentially very good news, as the track record for tests so far in the United States has been dismal. In the weeks since COVID-19 first appeared in the US, the CDC has, as of Friday, tested a grand total of 3,958 individuals, while other public health laboratories around the country tested 12,584 cases.
Meanwhile, South Korea has the capability to run about 15,000 diagnostic tests in a single day. It has tested about 230,000 people – around 15 times more than the US – even though its population is about 15% that of the US.
When Trump was asked about the lack of testing, he failed to show any accountability, blaming past administrations instead.
“I don’t take responsibility at all because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time,” he responded.
Trump and his task force also announced that visits to nursing homes would be suspended with exceptions including “end-of-life situations.” This is a sensible plan given the vulnerability of nursing home populations, as we have seen in Washington state.
Friday’s press conference also had some decidedly mixed messages: President Trump trumpeted the progress that had been made fighting the coronavirus and uttered some predictable odes to himself, saying, “We’re doing a great job.”
At the podium, Trump shook hands with two of the business leaders who spoke at the press conference – despite the CDC’s advice to avoid doing so. The president also said he would not self-isolate after coming in contact with a Brazilian official who visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend and later tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump said he would likely get tested “fairly soon” when pressed on the matter. (On Saturday, Trump confirmed he had been tested and would have the results in a day or two.) Regardless, the president did not seem to model the most responsible behavior.
When asked why the White House had closed its pandemic office in 2018, Trump passed the buck saying, “I don’t know anything about it.” This is either a fib since it’s been widely reported on, or a sign of the president’s ignorance.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence outdid his usual genuflections to the Dear Leader by peppering his remarks with asides like, “Mr. President, from early on you took decisive action.”
While these rhetorical flourishes are merely annoying, Pence also said that the “risk of serious illness remains low” to Americans. Well, it depends on your definition of “low”: An analysis of 44,000 coronavirus patients in China found that 14% had severe cases and 5% were critical. The fatality rate was 2.3%. Nearly 1 in 5 who had contracted the virus either became seriously ill or died.
And when Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump’s top infectious disease adviser, was asked to estimate the duration of the coronavirus crisis, his optimistic projection was eight or nine weeks. He explained that it was hard to estimate, with figures depending heavily on containment and mitigation efforts. Even Trump conceded, “The next eight weeks are critical.”
But President Trump also continued to downplay the severity of the pandemic. At one point, he said that there would be five million coronavirus tests available within a month, before going on to add, “I doubt we’ll need anywhere near that.”
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That is likely another example of Trump’s wishful thinking about the crisis. In fact, on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a scientist herself and the kind of sober leader we need right now, publicly said that 60-70% of the German population would get the virus.
In short, Friday’s press conference was not the calamity of Trump’s Oval Office address two days earlier, but it still revealed a president who trusts his gut that this crisis will somehow blow over, even though as of now, there is scant evidence that is the case.
This article has been updated to reflect the latest news that President Trump has been tested for the coronavirus.