President Donald Trump returned to the White House podium Tuesday. He offered a stark warning about the coronavirus’s progression, urging Americans to wear a mask as he predicted the spread of the disease would worsen before it improves.
“It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” Trump acknowledged.
“Something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.”
After weeks of focusing on public events on other issues and repeatedly downplaying the virus’s impact, Trump urged Americans to wear a mask and encouraged young people to avoid crowded bars and to “be smart.” The president, who was not wearing a mask himself, said he carries one and is “getting used” to it.
Trump returned to the podium Tuesday to respond to criticism surrounding his administration’s response to the coronavirus as cases continue to surge in several states. In a significant departure from his recent events, Trump tread lightly around politics, never mentioning his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, during the 27-minute briefing.
“We’re asking everybody that when you cannot socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask,” Trump said in perhaps his most explicit endorsement on that issue to date. “Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact, they’ll affect. We need everything we can get.”
More: Trump says of sex trafficking suspect Ghislaine Maxwell, ‘I wish her well.’
Trump had previously had said that wearing a mask was a personal choice. Though he didn’t deviate from that position, he also didn’t raise it. Public health officials have increasingly found that mask-wearing is effective in limiting the spread. But in the U.S., the practice has been viewed through an increasingly political lens.
Despite the warnings, Trump offered a generally rosy assessment of his administration’s response to the virus, saying scientists have “learned so much about this disease,” and predicting vaccines would become “a lot sooner than anyone thought possible.”
He repeated his assertion the virus would eventually “disappear,” a line that has drawn criticism from his Democratic opponents in the past.
“Moments after reading from his script and saying the outbreak would worsen before it gets better, Trump just reverted to his lie that the virus will simply ‘disappear’ – an assumption that has had deadly consequences for thousands of innocent Americans,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates tweeted.
DNC war room spokesperson and adviser Lily Adams said Trump’s Tuesday briefing and messaging about coronavirus “doesn’t mean he’s turned over a new leaf on his response.”
“The White House thinks these briefings will be good for Trump’s ratings, but the more people hear from Trump, the more they see what a failure he is,” she said.
Trump’s appearance came weeks after he suspended the briefings amid internal debate about whether they were helping him or hurting. That debate continued to roil the White House after Trump announced Monday he would restart the effort.
The president ended the near-daily briefings in April soon after he seemed to suggest the virus could be treated with antiseptics, a statement that drew alarm and warnings from public health officials but that the White House said was misconstrued. Some Republicans thought the briefings and Trump’s penchant for going off-script damaged the public perception of his response.
Trump referred briefly to the next phase of coronavirus stimulus congressional leaders are negotiating with the White House. Lawmakers are considering an extension of unemployment insurance and a federal program geared to keep small businesses afloat.
“We’re working very hard on it, we’re making a lot of progress,” Trump said. “I also know that both sides want to get it done.”
Trump said congressional leaders are looking at a formula to replace the additional $600 million Americans received on top of their weekly unemployment benefits: “70% of the amount.” The increased benefits are due to expire on July 31.
Trump also offered his good wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell, an associate of Jeffrey Epstein, who faces charges that she helped recruit girls as young as 14 who were sexually abused by the billionaire financier. Epstein killed himself in his jail cell last year while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.
“I haven’t been following it too much,” Trump said when asked about Maxwell’s case. “I just wish her well, frankly.”
Trump said he had met Maxwell “numerous times” over the years because he lived in Palm Beach, where Epstein had an estate.
Unlike in the past briefings, Trump stood alone in the White House briefing room on Tuesday. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a frequent presence at earlier briefings who has since faced criticism from senior White House aides, said he was not invited to attend. Also not joining the president: Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, Vice President Mike Pence, or other members of the task force.
Asked about Fauci and Birx, Trump said, “Dr. Birx is right outside.”
He did not comment on Fauci.
Trump’s return to the briefing room was an implicit recognition that the virus remains a threat – to public health, to the nation’s economy, and the president’s chances for reelection. Though he mostly staged events on other issues in recent weeks, Trump faces questions about his handling of the crisis as his poll numbers have slipped against Biden in several battleground states.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News last week that ending the briefings is one reason Trump’s approval numbers on handling the coronavirus have gone “maybe a little softer” in recent months. But she also acknowledged there was not universal support with the White House for bringing them back.
She said her position was “my view, which is different than some people here.”
Trump has sought to downplay the coronavirus pandemic even as more than half of all states, including California and Michigan, have paused reopening plans or are taking steps to halt the spread of COVID-19 amid a surge in cases across the country.
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