Donald Trump has said the US will investigate a conspiracy theory surrounding the coronavirus suggesting it originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and was originally intended as a weapon for use in biological warfare, with secretary of state Mike Pompeo urging Beijing to “come clean” on the matter.
While the president was triggering a new constitutional crisis by threatening to adjourn Congress on Wednesday over a minor political grievance, his supporters were staging protests across the country against ongoing stay-at-home orders, with armed demonstrators chanting “Lock her up!” outside the offices of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.
After teasing out the release of a set of "guidelines" for state and local government to begin reopening during the pandemic, the president unveiled his MAGA-referencing "Opening Up America Again" plan, which he said could allow some states to begin reopening "literally tomorrow" despite criticisms that the plan doesn't offer any worker protections or consistent enforcement to prevent a spike in outbreaks.
He said his guidelines offer a "phased, deliberate approach" for states to re-open businesses, after the president has grown impatient with a stalled economy in the wake of the pandemic.
Mr Trump said "a national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution."
The president told governors on Thursday that "you're going to be calling the shots" despite telling Americans just days earlier that he has "total authority" to end quarantine and other mitigation efforts.
Ronald Klain, who led the Ebola response under former president Barack Obama, said that the "plan" is "barely a PowerPoint."
Meanwhile, the president's approval rating dropped six percentage points within the first weeks of April, marking the largest point drop in his presidency, according to Gallup.
His current 43 per cent rating, however, still hovers above his 40 per cent average.
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Hello and welcome to The Independent's rolling coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in the US and the Donald Trump administration's response to it.
Trump threatens unprecedented move to adjourn Congress over nominee 'scam'
Donald Trump has threatened to invoke a never-before-employed power of his office to adjourn both chambers of Congress to enable him to make “recess appointments” to fill vacant positions he says his nominees are being blocked from securing as part of a “scam” by Senate Democrats.
The president opened his daily White House press conference on Wednesday - nominally about the coronavirus crisis gripping the nation - by griping about the situation, alleging many of his would-be appointees should by now be in place and working on virus-related initiatives. He was characteristically light on specifics, however, as to how the federal response to Covid-19 might be different if he had been allowed to take their seats in the upper chamber.
While the president was busy triggering a whole new constitutional crisis, there was an unexpected guest at yesterday's press session.
Metaphor fans, take note.
John T Bennett has this latest instalment of our semi-regular feature series: "Is he allowed to do that?".
'Operation Gridlock': Right-wing protesters demonstrate against stay-at-home measures from Michigan to Kentucky
While Trump was airing grievances at the podium (more on which in a moment), his supporters were staging protests across the country against ongoing stay-at-home orders, with armed demonstrators chanting “Lock her up!” outside the offices of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Thousands of protesters in cars with horns honking thronged around Michigan's state Capitol on Wednesday, with traffic around the Lansing statehouse jammed for hours by a rally, dubbed "Operation Gridlock" and organised by the Republican-aligned Michigan Conservative Coalition to challenge the Democratic governor's social-distancing measures, among the strictest in the nation.
Michigan has faced one of the country's fastest-growing infection rates for the new coronavirus, with more than 27,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,800 deaths from Covid-19.
But a backlash against Whitmer's stay-at-home directive, which she last week extended through to the end of April while toughening the terms of the order, has taken on political overtones.
Critics of Whitmer, widely seen as a potential running mate for presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, object to what they call inconsistencies and over-reach in her response to the public health crisis. Whitmer also is a co-chair of Biden's campaign and previously drew national attention by trading jabs with Trump over the spread of the coronavirus in her state.
The latest version of her executive order bars residents from travel between homes or using motorboats, and it prohibits retail sales of home furnishings, garden supplies or paint while leaving marijuana dispensaries open.
Michigan is one of 42 states where governors have ordered residents to remain indoors except for necessary outings like grocery shopping or doctor's visits, while closing schools, universities and non-essential businesses.
The boisterous but peaceful midday rally in Lansing yesterday drew at least 2,000 vehicles filled with protesters, their horns and car radios blaring.
About 100 emerged on foot - some draped in American flags or "Don't Tread on Me" banners, some wearing red Trump 2020 campaign hats. They converged on the Capitol steps and surrounding the grounds, most without face coverings and none observing safe social-separation guidelines.
The crowd included militia members and individuals carrying assault-style rifles and other guns, a reflection of Michigan's "open-carry" firearms laws. And there were shouts of "lock her up," a chant that became a staple of Trump's campaign rallies and originally referring to his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Appearing on CNN on Wednesday, Whitmer defended the stringent nature of her stay-at-home orders. "We have to be really aggressive here to save lives," she said.
Similar protests were also held in cities in Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.
This was the scene in Frankfort, Kentucky, where recently-elected governor Andy Bershear received similar treatment:
Meanwhile in Columbus, Ohio, photographer Joshua A Bickel of local newspaper The Columbus Dispatch captured this extraordinary photo, which was quickly likened to a "zombie movie" online:
Here's Andrew Buncombe's report on some deeply troubling scenes.
Trump says coronavirus 'past its peak', again teasing reopening
Back to Trump, who otherwise used Wednesday’s Rose Garden press briefing to say the disease is now “past its peak”, opening the way for gradual reopening, an assessment cautiously agreed with by task force leader Dr Deborah Birx, who said the statistics are "improving".
He called the latest data "encouraging", saying the numbers have "put us in a very strong position to finalise guidelines for states on reopening the country".
"We'll be opening some states much sooner than others," he continued, trailing an announcement expected today on relaxing social distancing measures in some states.
Justifying that statement against suggestions it was dangerously premature, Trump argued: "There is also death in keeping it closed. When you look at mental health, suicides... There is death in having a strongly closed country."
The president was otherwise again on testy form, striking out at his enemies as though he were conducting a campaign rally in a provincial sports arena, not a disaster briefing from the White House gardens.
"Whether it's Russia, Russia Russia, or whether it's impeachment hoax, or whatever it may be, it's always roadblocks and a waste of time," he grumbled about the Democrats.
Of the World Health Organisation (WHO) - the body he is cutting funding to out of misplaced spite with the US facing 645,064 cases coronavirus and 28,585 deaths and counting - Trump said bluntly: "We don't want to be the suckers anymore."
He otherwise accused other countries of being dishonest about their casualty rates, the states worst hit by the virus of bringing it upon themselves and House speaker Nancy Pelosi of not taking the virus seriously in February, at which point he himself was saying all of this would just go away and took no action to avert the crisis whatsoever.
Trump also distanced himself from the delays to the $1,200 (£958) stimulus cheques being sent to 70m American households caused by his insistence on having his name printed on them. "I don't know too much about it," he said, with fingers presumably crossed tightly behind his back.
Here's Gino Spocchia on the president attempting to smear the WHO to save his own sorry hide.
CDC director defies Trump to endorse embattled World Health Organisation
The aforementioned Speaker Pelosi said yesterday that Trump's decision to cut off the WHO would be "swiftly challenged" after it drew international condemnation, with everyone from the UN to the EU to the UK government expressing slack-jawed disbelief and raising objections.
The president was even undermined on the question by his own allies, with Dr Robert Redfield - director of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) - telling This Morning on CBS the WHO was a "great partner", a clear note of defiance against his boss.
Here's Danielle Zoellner's report.
President says administration investigating Wuhan bioweapon conspiracy theory
Trump also said on Wednesday that his administration is trying to determine whether the coronavirus emanated from a lab in Wuhan, China, with secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying Beijing "needs to come clean" on what they know.
The source of the virus remains a mystery. General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said on Tuesday that US intelligence indicates that the coronavirus likely occurred naturally, as opposed to being created in a laboratory in China, but there is no certainty either way.
Fox News reported on Wednesday that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory not as a bioweapon, but as part of China's effort to demonstrate that its efforts to identify and combat viruses are equal to or greater than the capabilities of the United States.
This report and others have suggested the Wuhan lab where virology experiments take place and lax safety standards there led to someone getting infected and appearing at a nearby "wet" market, where the virus began to spread.
"We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened," Trump said on Wednesday.
Asked if he had raised the subject in his conversations with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Trump said: "I don't want to discuss what I talked to him about the laboratory, I just don't want to discuss, it's inappropriate right now."
Trump has sought to stress strong US ties with China during the pandemic as the United States has relied on China for personal protection equipment desperately needed by American medical workers.
As far back as February, the Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology dismissed rumors that the virus may have been artificially synthesized at one of its laboratories or perhaps escaped from such a facility.
Pompeo, in a Fox interview after Trump's news conference, said "we know this virus originated in Wuhan, China," and that the Institute of Virology is only a handful of miles away from the wet market.
"We really need the Chinese government to open up" and help explain "exactly how this virus spread," said Pompeo. "The Chinese government needs to come clean"
The broad scientific consensus holds that SARS-CoV-2, the virus' official name, originated in bats.
Here's Alex Woodward's report.
Joseph Stiglitz: Trump has ‘blood on his hands’ over Covid-19 response
The Nobel Prize-winner, who advised both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has a few choice words for the president over his botched response to the coronavirus.
Here's Ben Chu to recount them.
Dr Fauci says Americans can invite Tinder dates over 'if they're willing to take a risk'
As part of his mission to get his messaging to as wide an audience as possible, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been speaking to Snapchat for its "Good Luck America" interview series, taking questions on such topics as 5G conspiracy theories and when the baseball season can resume.
He was also asked about online dating by host Peter Hamby and gave an agreeably frank answer.
This was the exchange:
If you’re swiping on a dating app like Tinder, or Bumble, or Grindr, and you match with someone that you think is hot, and you’re just kind of like, “Maybe it’s fine if this one stranger comes over.” What do you say to that person?
"You know, that’s tough. Because it’s what’s called relative risk. If you really feel that you don’t want to have any part of this virus, will you maintain six feet away, wear a mask, do all the things that we talk about in the guidelines? If you’re willing to take a risk - and you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks- you could figure out if you want to meet somebody. And it depends on the level of the interaction that you want to have.
"If you’re looking for a friend, sit in a room and put a mask on, and you know, chat a bit. If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that’s your choice regarding a risk.
"The one thing you don’t want to do is make sure the person is feeling well. Even though there’s a lot of asymptomatic infections, that’s one of the things that’s really troublesome. That if everybody transmitted would only transmit when they’re sick, that would be much easier. But what we’re seeing, which becomes really problematic, is that there’s a considerable amount of transmission from an asymptomatic person. And we’ve got well-documented now, you know, that situation on the nuclear carrier, the Roosevelt, USS Roosevelt, where hundreds of sailors have gotten infected from people that were not sick. That’s tough."
Here's the latest instalment in the series:
Everyone in New York must wear a mask in public, executive order states
Danielle Zoellner has the latest on a further tightening of restrictions in the Big Apple, the American epicentre of the outbreak.
Joe Biden slams Trump for not wearing a mask as running mate speculation intensifies
Speaking of masks, here's the Democratic nominee-elect bashing Trump for not wearing one.
Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed him yesterday and has since indicated she would be open to being his running mate.
She will have plenty of competition for the role though...
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