President Trump is aggressively seeking to sell the public on his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, a push slammed by critics for presenting a rosier picture than reality.
At the White House’s daily press briefings, Trump has taken credit for doing a “hell of a job” and fashioned himself as a wartime president against a backdrop of steadily escalating coronavirus cases and deaths.
He’s said he always knew the outbreak was a pandemic after downplaying the danger in January and February, while voicing optimism about progress in testing and finding a vaccine.
He’s criticized state governors who have complained about shortages in critical medical supplies and repeatedly battled with the media. On Sunday, he denied saying things he’d said days earlier, adding fuel to a debate in the media about whether to show the press briefings in real time.
“As @realDonaldTrump continues to prattle on at his nightly rally about what a terrific job he’s doing, America clears 100,000 diagnosed COVID-19 cases-tops in the world and rapidly climbing,” CNN pundit and former Obama strategist David Axelrod wrote in a Sunday tweet. “Why are we wasting so much time on tedious, shameless self-promotion?”
Polls show a majority of the public approves of the job Trump is doing, which likely bolsters the White House’s confidence in the briefings. Trump has also sought to play questions about whether the media would broadcast the briefings to his advantage by setting up the press as rooting for his and the country’s failure.
Trump in recent days described his administration’s performance as “fantastic,” “incredible” and “great” amid criticism that the administration was late to recognize the threat and to urge Americans to practice social distancing.
To be sure, the president has taken steps that have earned him commendation, including the decision to declare a national emergency over the virus on March 13 and, more recently, to extend social distancing guidelines until the end of April based on advice from public health officials.
“I think, beginning March 13, he has come to grips with the crisis,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But even after March 13, Trump flirted with reopening much of the country by Easter before being convinced the virus’s spread might actually be peaking around that holiday on April 12.
Huang said Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China in late January, which the president often cites as an example of swift action against the virus, would have been more effective if it had been paired with more aggressive steps to screen travelers and enforce quarantines.
Some of the president’s key actions to combat the virus have also amounted to reversals from previously held stances, further undermining his effort to project a sense of control over the pandemic.
Trump last week invoked the Defense Production Act to compel General Motors to make ventilators one day after he questioned state requests for tens of thousands of the breathing machines.
Trump on Sunday predicted the deaths from the virus would peak in two weeks and repeatedly referred to models that showed up to 2.2 million Americans could die of the virus without any mitigation efforts, saying the figure influenced his decision to extend social distancing guidelines.
He also then took credit for actions that he said would prevent the country from reaching such a gruesome milestone.
“If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number maybe even less, but to 100,000… we all, together, have done a very good job,” Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden.
Yet Trump as recently as last week compared the coronavirus to the common flu or automobile accidents. He predicted in February that the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. would be close to zero “within a couple days.”
“The most cynical thing @POTUS did yesterday was move the goal posts on his performance. He now says millions would have died if not for his heroic effort. That’s to cover for hundreds of thousands dying. Just remember his inaction got us here and he said that magic would solve it,” Joe Lockhart, a former White House spokesman under President Clinton, wrote in a tweet.
Trump has talked up therapeutic treatments being tested by the Food and Drug Administration, such as drugs used to treat malaria, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, that are being tested on more than 1,000 patients in New York. Health professionals, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have emphasized that the treatments have not yet been proven to be safe and effective.
The president’s allies have credited him with adopting a somber tone for most of the past two weeks. He appeared to fully grasp the extent of the problem on Sunday as he spoke soberly about worst case scenarios and images of bodies being taken out of a New York City hospital.
Advisers also pointed to the extension of social distancing guidelines despite a desire to reopen parts of the economy as proof that Trump is actually taking to heart the data presented to him by officials like Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx.
Trump signaled in an appearance Monday on “Fox & Friends” that he would continue to listen to public health officials if they recommended extending the guidelines into May.
“Once he saw the gravity of the numbers in the modeling, he made the right choice,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign aide who now co-hosts a radio show focused on the pandemic.
Recent polling indicates Trump’s tactics to flood the airwaves with his own messaging may be effective politically. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released at the end of last week showed that 51 percent of Americans surveyed approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, whereas 45 percent disapprove. Fifty-eight percent also said the president acted too slowly in the early days of the outbreak.
Trump will face a major test in the coming weeks as he shepherds the public through a period expected to yield the peak number of COVID-19 cases and further economic turmoil. The number of domestic cases exceeded 153,000 on Monday, while statewide shutdowns have forced businesses to temporarily close their doors and lay off or furlough employees.
“Presidents get reelected in wartimes more often than not,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who held communications roles in George W. Bush’s White House and on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “We’ve already seen at least a little bit of a rallying around the commander in chief, and we don’t know how long that lasts.”
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