'Very painful' two weeks ahead for US, Trump says

Coronavirus: Trump finally got real about pandemic in gloomy briefing

Repeatedly during dark White House briefing, president and his team shied away from the most powerful place in the world

John T. Bennett
Washington
@BennettJohnT
Wednesday 01 April 2020 15:58
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Time and again Tuesday night, the White House briefing room lectern was eerily empty. Donald Trump and his coronavirus task force leaders were nearby, but no one wanted to occupy the most powerful two feet of real estate in the world.

The country and world saw a much different Mr Trump deliver perhaps his most honest and bleak assessment yet of the coronavirus outbreak. Though the two-hour evening briefing ended with him jousting with a few reporters, the president who once dismissed the disease as "like the flu" was noticeably somber as the weight of his office and duty clearly rested on his shoulders.

A clearly shaken George W Bush addressed the country from the White House on 11 September 2001, knowing thousands of Americans had been killed in that day's al-Qaeda airliner attacks. An emotional Barack Obama, speaking as the country's father in chief, wiped tears from the corners of his eyes in the White House briefing room in January 2016 when he spoke in December 2012 about 20 elementary school children who were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut.

Asked Tuesday evening about government models that project between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths on US soil, the usually bombastic president who tries to cast all things related to his presidency in the most positive light possible acknowledged: "They are very sobering, yes, when you see 100,000 people and that is at a minimum number."

The president spoke slowly for the first hour-plus of the briefing, looking down often, appearing to search for the right words. He has been compared to a carnival-barker and a narcissist who craves attention by his critics.

But he shed that persona at the James S Brady Briefing Room door as he talked of widespread death and pleaded with his countrymen and countrywomen to abide by federal guidelines that he and his team can now only hope keep the death toll within the range of those grim models.

The combative Trump did return once the questions turned political, but the former reality television star and flamboyant New York real estate executive went to the briefing room to warn his country of something his immediate predecessors never dealt with -- and how he handles what he predicted will be a "very tough two weeks."

"Now we are looking at, and as many people as we are talking about, whatever we can do under that number and substantially under that number we have done that through really great mitigation," he said. "We have done that through a lot of very dedicated American people that, you know, 100,000 is, according to modeling, a very low number."

Mr Trump has focused on the death toll for weeks, signalling a revised, by necessity, re-election strategy arguing he kept it low through actions like banning travellers from China, where Covid-19 originated, and ordering "social distancing."

But now that strategy must be revised yet again, as reality confronts a president who has not always appeared rooted in it.

"I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead," a rattled Mr Trump said. "We're going to go through a very tough two weeks and then, hopefully, as the experts are predicting, as I think a lot of us are predicting after having studied it so hard, we are going to start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel. But this is going to be a very painful, very – very, very painful – two weeks."

Not long after those words, Mr Trump did something remarkable. He exited the spotlight, yielding the lectern to his public health experts for almost an hour, instead mostly occupying a spot a few feet away from the lectern.

As federal infectious disease experts Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, members of his coronavirus task force, fielded question after question, Mr Trump was somewhere he has rarely, if ever, been during his presidency: He was out the television frame.

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The lectern had been fitted with the seal of the Office of the President. A dark blue flag representing the same office had been placed behind that lectern.

Yet, in a remarkable scene that brought Mr Trump's newfound worries about the expected Covid-19 death toll, the man who occupies that very office and has so altered what many Americans think of it was not visible to those watching on television.

In a twist of irony, that is the very the medium with which The Donald is so enamoured.

If was as if another virus had spread among those senior officials assembled on the podium – Vice President Mike Pence also was there – as time and again they left the lectern unoccupied. They looked at one another for answers to technical policy and medical questions, and they sidestepped many.

But, like their boss, the officials did not hide what they believe is coming during one of the darkest and gloomiest White House briefings in most Americans' lifetimes.

"It's a projection based on using very much what happened in Italy and then looking at all the models," Ms Birx said. "And so, as you saw on that slide, that was our real number, that 100,000 to 200,000. And we think that that is the range."

One reporter asked Fauci about those very projections, saying succinctly: "Dr Fauci, should Americans be prepared for the likelihood that there will be 100,000 Americans who die from this virus?"

"The answer is yes. We need – as sobering a number as that is – we should be prepared for it. Is it going to be that much? I hope not, and I think the more we push on the mitigation, the less likelihood it would be that number," he said bluntly. "But as being realistic, we need to prepare ourselves that that is a possibility, that that's what we will see."

Mr Trump had met privately with his coronavirus team just minutes before entering the briefing room. Once he took his position, he notably turned to the kind of unifying rhetoric his predecessors, whom he has shunned since taking office, in a rare presidential moment.

"Our strength will be tested and our endurance will be tried, but America will answer with love and courage and ironclad resolve," the president told the nation. "This is the time for all Americans to come together and do our part.

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