Even President Donald Trump, a serial spinner of his own political realities, accepted science’s dire truth in ditching an Easter target to open up the US economy with the coronavirus pandemic set to take a savage turn.
Trump’s extension of social distancing guidelines until April 30 is a highly significant move that means American life will remain shut down for at least a month, and probably longer.
Despite cascading humanitarian and political impacts of that decision, the devastating toll of the virus left Trump little choice – even though some conservative backers have been urging him to ease lockdowns.
A President, who a month ago was predicting a miracle that would just make the virus go away, was presented with cataclysmic figures that 2.2 million Americans could die if he indulged his itch to start reopening the economy in the coming week.
“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” Trump, who last week repeatedly suggested that win was near, said Sunday, extending restrictions due to expire on Monday for another month at least.
Trump’s decision to listen to his advisers will relieve public health officials and emergency physicians countrywide and shows that he is, in extremis, willing to listen to science – in a way that would be a given for most presidents but has not been so for a commander-in-chief who has so often blurred truth.
The President appeared at a Sunday evening news briefing in which he rattled off multiple false statements, called corporate CEOs to the mic to praise his leadership and falsely and personally attacked journalists who asked him tough questions.
He also bizarrely appeared to accuse health workers of stealing surgical masks amid huge shortages brought on by terrible conditions in hospitals and accused states of “hoarding” ventilators. Trump also boasted about his own TV ratings.
His antics appeared especially questionable given the sobering apparent reality that tens of thousands of Americans will die in the coming weeks as the pandemic takes a terrible hold.
At a desperate moment in America’s modern history, Trump appears to continue to be focused intently on his own political image, claiming personal credit and remaining highly sensitive to any form of criticism.
Trump’s reversal appeared to be the latest occasion when his officials have brought flattery and the power of argument to bear to change his mind on leadership decisions that were apparently based on hunches and limited reasoning.
On Saturday, for instance, he floated the idea of quarantining New York – without consulting local officials – only for his subordinates to convince him the idea was not possible.
Trump concedes death toll could be 100,000 or more
Trump predicted the death rate in the US – which doubled from Thursday to Sunday – could peak within two weeks but the nation could get “to the bottom of the hill” by June 1.
Even that figure seems characteristically optimistic. “We should be so lucky,” Rhode Island emergency physician Megan Ranney told CNN, pointing out that only even if social distancing were adopted nationwide now, two weeks was probably not sufficient for all of the most critical cases to emerge.
He had been desperate to start some county-by-county opening of the economy in the days to come. But the President’s decision – potentially a turning point in the nation’s fight against the pandemic – appears to have followed concerted lobbying by two top public health officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx.
“We showed him the data. He looked at the data and he got it right away,” Fauci told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Monday. “It was a pretty clear picture. Dr. Debbie Birx and I went in together in the Oval Office and leaned over the desk and said, ‘Here are the data. Take a look.’ He looked at them, he understood them and he just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we got to to do it.’”
Trump predicted his decision would save hundreds of thousands of lives, in an apparent moving of the political goalposts to account for the fast worsening US pandemic.
“2.2 million people would have died if we didn’t do what we are doing,” the President said.
“If we can hold that number down … to 100,000, it’s a horrible number, maybe even less … we all, all together have done a very good job,” Trump said.
The new April 30 date marks yet another reversal of position on the pandemic by the President, who last week made clear he did not pick the Easter date, April 12, based on data but because it was a “beautiful timeline.” Shrugging off his row back, Trump claimed Sunday that Easter had only been an “aspirational date.”
Almost no one, who closely followed the science, modeling and data – including governors, health experts and commentators – thought Trump’s original timeline was smart.
Fauci explained Sunday that the US death toll, based on modeling, could reach 100,000 deaths or more, a comment first made on CNN.
“I think it’s entirely conceivable that if we do not mitigate to the extent we are trying to do is that you could reach that number,” Fauci said at the White House news conference.
He described Trump’s decision as a wise and prudent one.
Earlier on Sunday, Trump’s rationale for a county-by-county reopening of the economy was undercut by comments from his top official.
“I’m not against releasing the restrictions. I’m actually for it in an appropriate place. But I don’t recommend it unless we have the tools in place in real time,” Fauci said.
Birx also undermined the rationale for Trump’s plan to put in place new recommendations for social distancing after options were presented to him during the weekend.
“We all are deeply concerned and why we’ve been raising the alert in all metro areas and in all states,” Birx said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“No state, no metro area will be spared,” Birx said. “At this moment, we are asking every single governor and every single mayor to prepare like New York is preparing now.”
Birx also said Monday morning that rural communities in the US should prepare for the spread of Covid-19, “even though you think it’s not there.”
“This virus, we think, can spread with a lot of asymptomatic and mild cases. It’s not until it gets into the vulnerable groups that you start to see the hospitalizations,” Birx told NBC. “If you wait for that, if the metros and rural areas don’t take care now, by the time you see it, it has penetrated your community pretty significantly. And that’s what we’re concerned about. And that’s why you have to prepare, even though you think it’s not there,”
Pelosi claims Trump ‘fiddles’ while people die
The darkening mood over the pandemic did not convince Trump to moderate his extreme political rhetoric.
On Sunday, two journalists, Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour and CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, read the President’s own controversial comments back to him – which he denied in real-time on television.
“We’re getting the word out. We’re getting the accurate word out,” Trump told reporters.
In another example of the President being corrected, he said last week on Fox News that he just didn’t believe calls for 30,000 new ventilators, apparently referring to warnings of a shortage of the life saving equipment from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Fauci effectively corrected Trump on Sunday.
“I tend to believe Governor Cuomo,” Fauci told CNN.
“One way or the other, he needs the ventilators that he needs. And, hopefully, we will get him the ventilators that he needs.”
The generational challenge of the coronavirus pandemic would have tested any administration. And any President would have racked up failures under such intense pressure.
But Trump’s incessantly confusing positions, claims of huge personal success and willingness to politicize are raising scrutiny of his own administration’s performance.
His litany of false statements and misleading statistics – for instance his claim the US had tested far more people than South Korea – even though on a per capita basis the US figure is far lower, also focus criticism on his handling of the situation.
The President again celebrating what he says is the low mortality rate in the US comes across as in poor taste when the death toll in the United States is soaring.
Trump is not the only senior political leader willing to inject explosive political language into the debate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday highlighted Trump’s initial handling of the epidemic in her own interview with CNN, which contained exceedingly strong language.
“The President, his denial at the beginning, was deadly. His delaying of getting equipment to where it – it continues, his delay in getting equipment to where it’s needed is deadly,” Pelosi told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“As the President fiddles, people are dying and we have to, we just have to take every precaution,” Pelosi said.