Trump flees his own coronavirus briefing

 

 

A fed-up Donald Trump abruptly ended his coronavirus briefing at the White House today, turning and walking away from the lecturn after a bitter exchange with two reporters.

The event was designed to celebrate the United States' improved rate of testing for the virus. Having suffered from a severe shortage of testing kits during the early months of the pandemic, the US has now conducted more tests than any other country in the world, though it still lags far behind some nations on testing per capita.

As Mr Trump spoke, he was flanked by two massive posters boasting, "America leads the world in testing".

"Thanks to the courage of our citizens and our aggressive strategy, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved," he said.

"In every generation, through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task. We have met the moment and we have prevailed."

But everything went off the rails in the final minute of the briefing, as the President took umbrage at a question from CBS journalist Weijia Jiang.

Donald Trump speaking in the White House’s Rose Garden today. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP
Donald Trump speaking in the White House’s Rose Garden today. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP

"You've said many times that the US is doing far better than any other country when it comes to testing," Jiang said.

"Why does that matter? Why is this a global competition to you if, every day, Americans are still losing their lives, and we're still seeing more cases every day?"

For context, the US has about 1.4 million confirmed cases of the virus, and a death toll fast approaching 82,000.

Spain has the second-highest number of cases in the world with 268,000, and the United Kingdom has the second-highest number of deaths with 32,000.

"Well they're losing their lives everywhere in the world," Mr Trump responded.

"And maybe that's a question you should ask China. Don't ask me, ask China, OK? And when you ask them that question, you may get a very unusual answer."

It's unclear exactly what Mr Trump meant there, but he has sought to blame China for the scale of America's outbreak in recent weeks.

After that brief answer, Mr Trump tried to move on to another question. He pointed to CNN's Kaitlan Collins, who threw back to Jiang, giving her a chance to follow up.

"You want to follow up?" she asked.

"Sir, why are you saying that to me, specifically? That I should ask China?" Jiang asked.

"I'm telling you. I'm not saying it specifically to anybody. I'm saying it to anybody who would ask a nasty question like that," the President shot back.

"That's not a nasty question," Jiang said.

Again, Mr Trump tried to move to someone else.

"Please, go ahead. Anyone else? Please go ahead, in the back please," he said, pointing behind Jiang. Collins assumed that was her cue to speak.

"I have two questions," she started.

"No, it's OK. We'll go over here," Mr Trump said.

"But you pointed to me. I have two questions," Collins said.

"Next. Next please," he said.

"But you called on me," said Collins.

"I did, and you didn't respond, and now I'm calling on the young lady in the back," the President replied.

"I just wanted to let my colleague finish, but can I ask you a question?" Collins asked.

At that point, Mr Trump seemingly decided he'd had enough, and suddenly ended the briefing.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much," he said, turning and walking back into the White House without another word.

Mr Trump also used today's briefing to double down on his accusation that former president Barack Obama committed the "biggest political crime" in US history, in a supposed attempt to sabotage Mr Trump's 2016 campaign.

The context here is a little convoluted, so bear with me.

Last week Mr Trump's Justice Department dropped its prosecution of the President's former national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States.

RELATED: Former top Trump adviser pleads guilty

Gen Flynn was the first casualty of Mr Trump's administration. The President fired him mere weeks after taking office after it emerged Gen Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about those same conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Mr Trump interpreted the Justice Department's decision last week as a vindication of his view that the FBI's entire investigation into Russian election interference was illegitimate.

That investigation, you will recall, led to the prosecution of several Trump associates, including his campaign manager Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, personal lawyer Michael Cohen and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

In dozens of tweets over the weekend, Mr Trump fumed about the investigation and took direct aim at Mr Obama.

He appeared to have been agitated by comments from Mr Obama, made in private but obtained by Yahoo News, in which the former president criticised the Justice Department's decision on Gen Flynn.

"The fact (is) that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free," Mr Obama said.

"That's the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic - not just institutional norms - but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we've seen in other places."

Technically Gen Flynn was charged with making false statements to the FBI, not perjury.

RELATED: Obama slams Trump administration's 'chaotic' virus response

Anyway, with that background out of the way, let's get back to today's briefing. A reporter asked Mr Trump what, exactly, he was accusing Mr Obama of doing.

"You appeared to accuse President Obama of 'the biggest political crime in American history by far'. Those were your words. What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?" the reporter asked.

"Obamagate. It's been going on for a long time. It's been going on from before I even got elected, and it's a disgrace that it happened," Mr Trump replied.

"And if you look at what's gone on, if you look at now all of this information that's being released - and from what I understand, that's only the beginning - some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.

"You'll be seeing what's going on over the coming weeks, and I wish you'd write honestly about it, but unfortunately you choose not to do so."

"What is the crime exactly, that you're accusing him of?" the reporter pressed.

"You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you've got to do is read the newspapers, except yours."

He declined to specify which crime he was accusing Barack Obama of committing. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP
He declined to specify which crime he was accusing Barack Obama of committing. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP

Back on the subject of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Trump claimed no other country in the world was even "close" to the US on testing.

"We have great testing capacity now. It's getting even better. There's nobody close to us in the world, and we certainly have done a great job on testing, and testing is a very important function," he said.

The US is expected to pass 10 million tests this week, "more than double" any other nation, according to Mr Trump.

That is a significant turnaround from where America was in February and early March, when it suffered a catastrophic shortage of test kits. As a result, the virus was allowed to spread virtually undetected.

How was that shortage allowed to happen? A few unfortunate factors combined at once.

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, which means when the outbreak started, health authorities had to develop a new test to detect it.

The US chose not to accept test kits offered by the World Health Organisation, and instead the relevant government agency, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), set about creating its own. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a conservative approach to testing.

First, it prevented private laboratories from developing and manufacturing their own kits, compelling them to use only the CDC's. And second, it issued narrow guidelines for who should be tested - only people who had recently been to Wuhan, or had come into contact with a confirmed case.

By February 7, the CDC had distributed test kits to state labs. But there was a problem - the tests were faulty. Too many of them were returning inconclusive results, and they had to be fixed.

The FDA loosened its restrictions on private labs at that point, but it took another fortnight, until the end of the month, for the rate of testing to start picking up.

The situation now is far better.

"We're testing more people per capita than South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland and many other countries, and in some cases, combined," Mr Trump boasted today.

He was particularly keen on the comparison to South Korea. That country identified its first case of the virus on the same day as the US, but ramped up testing much faster and got on top of its outbreak.

The President's critics have frequently compared the two nations' responses.

Now, Mr Trump said, "every single state will be able to test more people per capita in May alone than South Korea has tested in four months since the outbreak began".

The US does still lag behind 10 other countries on testing per capita, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Australia and New Zealand are among them.

Originally published as Trump flees his own coronavirus briefing


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