Donald Trump’s dramatic shift on virus

Donald Trump held his first media briefing on the coronavirus in almost three months today, and it came with a noticeable shift in tone.

The US President halted his daily briefings back in April, a few days after he was mocked for speculating about injecting people with disinfectant.

At the time, he said the briefings were "not worth the effort" because "the lamestream media asks nothing but hostile questions". Mr Trump's advisers reportedly felt the long and often combative events were hurting him politically.

Today's briefing was different. Mr Trump spoke for less than half an hour, he didn't fight with reporters, and instead of downplaying the virus, he stressed that it will likely get worse.

"Some areas of the country are doing well, others doing less well. It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better. I don't like saying that, but that's the way it is," Mr Trump said.

He acknowledged there had been "a concerning rise in cases" across much of America's South and West, having previously dismissed that increase as an innocuous result of there being more testing.

And perhaps most significantly, the President urged Americans to protect each other from infection by wearing face masks.

"Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact," Mr Trump said, adding that he himself "will use it gladly" and has "no problem with it".

"When you can, use the mask. If you're close to each other, if you're in a group, I would put it on," he said.

 

 

It's the first time Mr Trump has issued such a clear, unambiguous instruction regarding masks, having refused to wear one in public himself for months.

"I just don't want to wear one myself," he said in April.

"I don't know, somehow, sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk - I think wearing a face mask as I greet Presidents, Prime Ministers, dictators, Kings, Queens, I don't know. Somehow, I don't see it for myself."

Mr Trump mocked his political opponent, Joe Biden, for donning a mask outside, and accused a reporter of wearing one to be "politically correct".

In May, Mr Trump consented to wear a mask behind the scenes while visiting a Ford plant in Michigan, but removed it before facing the cameras, saying he "didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it".

At that point, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was still stressing that masks were "recommended but not required", calling them "the personal choice of the individual".

Even 10 days ago, when Mr Trump did finally appear in public with a mask on for the first time, he stopped short of advising the public to wear them, merely saying that "it's fine to wear one if it makes you feel comfortable".

He brought more clarity to today's briefing. Asked why he didn't wear a mask more frequently, Mr Trump produced one from his pocket.

"I do actually do it when I need. I mean, I carry the mask," he said.

"I view it this way. Anything that potentially can help - and that certainly can potentially help - is a good thing."

 

The President's shift in tone was clearer in his prepared statement than in the question-and-answer session with reporters, when he occasionally reverted back to previous rhetoric.

"You've been saying for months the virus would simply disappear, and now you're saying that it's likely to get worse before it gets better. If it does keep getting worse, if Americans keep dying, are you responsible for that?" a reporter asked.

"Well the virus will disappear. It will disappear," Mr Trump insisted, before trying to shift some of the blame onto the state governors.

"I think, I always like to say - either way, if you look at it, the governors are working with me, I'm working with the governors, we're working hand-in-hand. I think we're all responsible," said Mr Trump.

"I view it as a team. Very good relationships with the governors. Very, very good relationships. I could say I'm fully responsible, but you know, one day we had a virus come in. And I closed the borders.

"Did a lot of things that were very good. In fact, Dr Fauci said we saved tens of thousands of lives when we closed the border. And nobody wanted to do it. I wanted to do it.

"One person is too much. But we're at what, 140,000? We could have double, triple, quadruple that number if we didn't. So we did a lot of things right.

"So it's a shame that it happened. It shouldn't have happened. China should have stopped it."

The President repeated his frequent assertion that the US has one of the world's lowest coronavirus death rates.

"Our case fatality rate has continued to decline, and is lower than the European Union and almost everywhere else in the world. If you watch American TV you'd think that the US was the only country involved with or suffering from the China virus," he said.

America's case fatality rate (i.e. the proportion of confirmed cases that result in death) is actually around the middle of the pack by global standards.

The US has the world's tenth-worst rate of deaths per million population, and its raw death toll of 145,000 is more than 60,000 higher than that of the next-hardest hit country, Brazil.

As you can see, some other countries do have significantly worse case fatality rates than the US. You can see Australia at the bottom. Picture: Our World in Data
As you can see, some other countries do have significantly worse case fatality rates than the US. You can see Australia at the bottom. Picture: Our World in Data

Another reporter asked Mr Trump whether he wanted Americans to judge him on how he has handled the pandemic when they vote in November's presidential election.

It was the sort of question that might have sparked an angry response three months ago. This time, Mr Trump answered it without complaint.

"This (the virus response), among other things. I think the American people will judge us on this, but they'll judge us on the economy that I created, and that already we're creating. We're seeing that in record job numbers, as you know," he replied.

"I think next year is going to be a record year, and I think they're going to judge me on that.

"I think they're going to judge me on the tax cutting and the regulation cutting, which nobody's ever done to the extent that we've been able to do it. On rebuilding the military. On how we've handled the VA (Veterans' Affairs); we got Veterans' Choice, something no one thought possible. That's been many decades, they've been trying to get Veterans' Choice. It's called Choice."

Veterans Choice is a healthcare program that allows American military veterans to see private sector doctors, outside the government's Veterans Affairs system, if they would otherwise have to wait too long for an appointment.

Mr Trump has repeatedly taken credit for creating the program, and frequently claims other politicians had been trying to get it done without success for decades.

The legislation was actually passed under his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr Trump had nothing to do with it.

"I think we can say this. In three-and-a-half years, the first years of a presidency, I don't think any administration, any president, has accomplished so much as we've accomplished. From energy, to health, to so many other things," the President continued.

"And then this came in, the plague. I call it the plague. The plague came in. Should have been stopped, wasn't stopped. It came in, we had to shut things down to save potentially millions of lives. We did that."

RELATED: America still deeply divided over wearing face masks

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Despite those examples of characteristic Trumpian bluster, some of the President's responses to reporters did line up with his broader shift in tone.

For example, when he was asked whether he thought the government should increase its funding for coronavirus testing, Mr Trump deferred to the experts.

"If the doctors and the professionals feel that, even if we're a level that nobody ever dreamt possible, that they would like to do more, I'm OK with it," he said.

That's a far cry from last month's revelation that Mr Trump had asked his government's health officials to reduce the rate of testing, believing it made the numbers look worse than they really were.

He promised to maintain a "relentless focus" on the pandemic response going forward.

Earlier, when she was asked why Mr Trump had decided to resume his coronavirus briefings after all this time, Ms McEnany said he was trying to keep Americans "informed".

"He's the right person to give the information to the American people," the White House Press Secretary explained.

"And, boy, does he get the information to a lot of the American people during his briefings, as noted by the ratings."

Mr Trump himself also cited the briefings' TV ratings as a justification.

"We had very successful briefings," the President told reporters yesterday.

"I was doing them and we had a lot of people watching. Record numbers watching."

Originally published as Donald Trump's dramatic shift on virus

Here we see the raw death toll, which has the US exceeding everyone else by far. Picture: Our World in Data
Here we see the raw death toll, which has the US exceeding everyone else by far. Picture: Our World in Data

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