With his poll numbers dipping, Donald Trump vowed to “soon” open the US economy “with a bang”, even as the number of coronavirus deaths in the US passed the 14,500 mark and his original target date for ending the national lockdown is just four days away.
The president again made questionable claims, including a bit in his prepared opening statement in which he cited “numbers” without explaining what they are, to predict the US is pulling out of the worst of the outbreak. After he departed the briefing, Deborah Birx, a federal physician on his coronavirus task force, appeared to provide those “numbers”. She said the number of cases appears to be “leveling off” because even though the amount of new cases in hotspot cities remains in the hundreds or thousands per day, the rates of positive tests are in the 30 per cent range.
“We’re getting closer. You see the numbers. We’re getting much closer to getting our country back to the way it was,” Mr Trump said vaguely. “We’re going to win. We’re going to do it much sooner than people think.”
For about a week last month, Mr Trump predicted all or much of the country would be “open for business” by Easter Sunday. “I was criticised for that,” he said, backtracking by calling that “an aspirational date”.
Mr Trump was back pushing a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment drug for Covid-19 – even though his top public health experts warn that trials have not yet shown it is effective against the novel disease. The New York Times reported this week that his family has a financial stake in the parent company of the firm that makes a popular version of the medication.
Despite those words of caution from Anthony Fauci and others, Mr Trump announced a federal medical stockpile now contains 30 million of the pills, with his government “distributing millions”.
Mr Trump held another combative and aggressive briefing on a day when US confirmed cases of the virus approached 419,600 and deaths neared the 14,300 mark. It was a day, however, when the political world paused from the partisan back-and-forth about his handling of the epidemic as it focused on senator Bernie Sanders exiting the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential primary.
For Mr Trump, that took attention away from his declining poll numbers as he saw drops in overall job performance and his handling of the pandemic outbreak. According to RealClearPolitics, the president’s approval rating sank to 45.2 per cent, erasing a slight increase during the first weeks of the outbreak. On his virus response, a CNN-SSRS survey found a majority of those polled, 55 per cent, disapprove of the president’s handling of the crisis.
Democrats and many public health experts on Wednesday continued to criticise both the federal response, Mr Trump’s view of Washington’s role, and his messaging.
Zeke Emanuel, vice provost of global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and the brother of former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, said Mr Trump should tell Americans life will not go back to normal for 18 months.
“I think a good leader – Winston Churchill or even Ronald Reagan – would have said, ‘Listen, we’ve got the next 18 months. Here’s what to expect. And here’s what we’re going to be doing in response to that,” he told MSNBC. “We are going to be able to open up a little bit. We are going to have to keep this physical distancing in place, with modifications.”
He also said Mr Trump should push questionable malaria drugs as a Covid-19 treatment less, and instead “prepare the public for what’s coming. There’s no preparation for the public”.
Asked about some conservatives’s calls that the United States somehow retaliate against China for not informing the world that the virus had gone public there, secretary of state Mike Pompeo said “now is not the time for retribution”. Such matters will be considered after the pandemic has subsided.
On a day when Mr Trump’s Tuesday evening harsh words for the World Health Organisation escalated, his top diplomat told reporters it is the administration’s job to make sure international organisations that receive US taxpayer funds are using those monies to “benefit America”.
“There’s going to be a lot of time to look back and see how the World Health Organisation performed,” he said after stating one of his duties is to “preserve and protect the American taxpayers”.
But Mr Trump sent more mixed signals about the millions of dollars in American funding that goes to the global group annually. He both said he is “holding back” on those contributions and starting a study to see if the funds should be withheld, while calling on China to put more into WHO coffers.
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