WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump warned on Tuesday that the “nasty horrible’” coronavirus will get worse in the U.S. before it gets better, but he also tried to paint a rosy picture of efforts to conquer the disease that has claimed more than 140,000 American lives in just five months.
He also professed a newfound respect for the protective face masks he has seldom worn. He pulled one from his pocket in the White House briefing room but didn't put it on.
After a three-month hiatus from his freewheeling daily virus briefings, Trump returned to the podium, keeping the stage to himself without the public health experts who were staples of his previous events but keeping close to scripted remarks prepared by aides.
Besides declaring support for masks as a way to fight the pandemic, he admonished young people against crowding bars and spreading the disease.
It all marked a delayed recognition by Trump that the economic reopening he's been championing since April — and, more importantly, his reelection — were imperiled by spiking cases nationwide.
There were no guarantees how long Trump's more measured tone, delivered with an eye to halting a campaign-season erosion of support, would last. Along the way Tuesday, the president still worked in jabs at the news media and Democrats for focusing on disease-fighting shortcomings in the U.S. as the rest of world also struggles with the virus. He also belatedly addressed bipartisan criticism of virus-testing delays that have hampered reopening plans.
“It will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better,” Trump said from the White House. But he also touted a reduction in deaths and progress on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, which he referred to repeatedly as a the “China virus.” He continued his recent encouragement of Americans to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.
“Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact," he said. "I’m getting used to the mask,” he added, pulling one out after months of suggesting that mask-wearing was a political statement against him.
Swaths of the country are now battling rising infections and growing deaths, and some states are once again having to close businesses and rethink school in the fall. Many retailers themselves are insisting their customers don masks.
For months, the nation’s top health experts have pleaded with Americans to wear masks in public and steer clear of crowds -- calling those simple steps life-saving -- even as the president’s stance fueled a partisan social divide.
The early evening show at the White House came as the next stage of the federal government’s response to the pandemic was being crafted on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers and White House officials were opening negotiations on a trillion-dollar-or-more “phase four” rescue package.
For weeks, White House aides have pressed Trump to grow more disciplined in his public statements about the pandemic. On Tuesday, he steered clear of what has been a favored talking point: that widespread testing for the virus in the U.S. “created” more cases, as aides noted that was false and projected a lack of responsibility.
Little more than three months from Election Day, Trump and his political team hoped that the podium spotlight would give him an edge against Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“The vaccines are coming, and they're coming a lot sooner than anybody thought possible,” Trump promised anew.
As early as next week, the first possible U.S. vaccine is set to begin final-stage testing in a study of 30,000 people to see if it really is safe and effective. A few other vaccines have begun smaller late-stage studies in other countries, and in the U.S. a series of huge studies are planned to start each month through fall in hopes of, eventually, having several vaccines to use. Already, people can start signing up to volunteer for the different studies.
Health authorities warn there’s no guarantee -- it’s not unusual for vaccines to fail during this critical testing step. But vaccine makers and health officials are hopeful that at least one vaccine could prove to work by year’s end. Companies already are taking the unusual step of brewing hundreds of millions of doses so that mass vaccinations could begin if the Food and Drug Administration signs off.
Trump also acknowledged bipartisan criticism of delays processing testing results.
"We’ll be able to get those numbers down," Trump said, saying his administration was working to improve the availability of rapid, point-of-care tests like those used to protect him at the White House.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told NPR Tuesday that he was glad Trump has begun to promote mask-wearing.
“If we, during those conferences, come out and have consistent, clear, noncontradictory messages, I believe it will be very helpful in getting people on the track of knowing the direction that we need to go to get this pandemic under control,” he said.
Biden, for his part Tuesday, launched into scathing criticism of Trump as he outlined the latest plank of his economic recovery plan, charging that Trump “failed his most important test as an American President: the duty to care for you, for all of us.”
“He’s quit on you, he’s quit on this country,” Biden said.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump took to Twitter to claim that “by comparison to most other countries, who are suffering greatly, we are doing very well — and we have done things that few other countries could have done!”
In fact, the U.S. leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths from the virus -- and ranks near the top on a per capita basis as well.
On Capitol Hill, some Republicans have broken with the White House in seeking additional federal funding for testing and contact-tracing in the next relief bill.
Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, in a news conference, encouraged White House aides to “keep Trump away from the podium,” calling the president "a threat to public health."
Trump's daily turns in the White House briefing room largely ended in late April after the president’s widely derided suggestion that injecting toxic disinfectant could help treat the coronavirus. The comment prompted widespread medical warnings against the potentially deadly move.
Scrapping the briefings was welcomed by aides who believed they were dragging down the president’s poll numbers, particularly with older voters. However, with his trademark rallies largely on hold because of the coronavirus, the view in Trump’s circle is that he needs an alternate means to reach voters.
And Trump missed the days when he would dominate cable television ratings with his early evening briefings. Tellingly, when he announced Monday that the sessions could return, he did so with an eye toward their time slot and a boast about ratings.