Despite Rising Coronavirus Cases, Trump's Focus Appears To Be Elsewhere

Jul 5, 2020
Originally published on July 5, 2020 11:20 am

President Trump, in a speech Friday at Mount Rushmore that lasted more than 40 minutes, focused on statues and "cancel culture" and accused his political opponents of fascism. But he spared just a few words for the pandemic that has killed 130,000 Americans, thanking "the doctors, nurses and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus." And that was it.

He gave it a little more attention Saturday night at the White House before a crowd of first responders and their families, touting the number of tests conducted in the United States. "We show cases, 99% of which are harmless," Trump said, adding that the country will have a therapeutic or vaccine solution long before the end of the year. It is unclear what he based that claim on.

Even with coronavirus cases spiking from California to Florida, Trump has largely kept his public focus elsewhere: "law and order," "our heritage," represented by statues that are a target of anti-racism protests, and job gains — even as governors find themselves forced to bring back shutdowns of bars, movie theaters and popular beaches.

This year, when coronavirus cases peaked the first time, the White House task force tackling the pandemic met every day and Trump held near-daily televised briefings. Now the task force meets only sporadically, decisions are made locally and Trump is nearly invisible when it comes to talking to the public about the pandemic.

Last Thursday, for the first time since late April, Trump returned to the White House press briefing room. He wasn't there to talk about surging coronavirus cases but about the latest jobs report, showing millions of people back at work.

"You are going to have a fantastic third quarter. It'll be a third quarter the likes of which nobody has ever seen before, in my opinion," Trump said, bringing his reelection message into the briefing room. "And the good thing is the numbers will be coming out just prior to the election. So the people will be able to see those numbers."

Trump makes no secret of the fact that for him, in this moment, reelection is at center stage. Acknowledging the difficult reality of the pandemic is hard to sell, so even as recently as a few days ago, Trump said the virus was "going to sort of just disappear" — a message that he has repeated since the early days of the pandemic.

On the rare occasions when he does talk about the coronavirus, Trump downplays the negatives. The case spikes, he insists, are just embers. "We have some areas where we're putting out the flames or the fires, and it's working out well," Trump said Thursday.

Four months from the election, Trump is trailing in every major national poll and in numerous swing-state polls. To propel him to victory in November, he is counting on a strong economic rebound and a pitch that the best is yet to come.

"Trump wants to focus on jobs and the economy," said Stephen Moore, who advises the president on economic issues. "I think most people in the president's campaign and the president himself believe that the economy is what he needs to focus on if he's going to beat [presumptive Democratic nominee] Joe Biden."

Trump speaks during a Fourth of July event on the South Lawn of the White House.
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

But public health experts are sounding the alarm, and governors who had previously resisted mask mandates are now imploring everyone to mask up.

"We are heading in the wrong direction, and we are heading there quickly," said Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now heads Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, a global health nonprofit. "What we are seeing in the U.S. today is that the virus has the upper hand, and what we're not seeing is systematic regular information given to Americans about what is happening with the virus and where, what is happening with the response and how can we all make it better."

In recent weeks, Trump has left the delivery of public health messages about the virus to others, including Vice President Pence, who brought back coronavirus task force briefings after more than two months without them.

A task force official told NPR that it isn't necessary for the group to meet as frequently as it did in the early days of the pandemic because there are fewer urgent and immediate decisions to be made than when it all began.

On Thursday, Pence met with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tampa, a hot spot within a hot spot state. The vice president wore a mask as he stepped off Air Force Two and was greeted by a masked DeSantis. Pence's message: "Just know that if all of us do our part, we'll get through this."

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, took umbrage at the idea that Trump isn't doing enough on the coronavirus pandemic, saying in a statement: "Any suggestion that the President is not working around the clock to protect the health and safety of all Americans, lead the whole-of-government response to this pandemic, including expediting vaccine development, and rebuild our economy is utterly false."

During remarks Thursday about the jobs numbers, Trump did briefly come about as close as he ever has to encouraging people to wear masks. He made news, simply by mentioning masks in a list of best practices.

"That includes face covering, social distance, testing and personal hygiene," Trump said, reading from remarks. "Wash your hands."

And just to make sure everyone noticed, after Trump left without taking questions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pointed to the president's remarks, noting: "The president specifically put in his speech encouraging Americans to wear a mask."

The question is, if Trump's supporters don't see him wearing a mask, will they believe others who say that doing so is important to slowing the spread of the virus?

: 7/04/20

An earlier version of this story misspelled Tom Frieden's last name as Frienden.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Now to the pandemic and the continually rising cases of the coronavirus in the United States. At least 120,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. Governors in some states are closing bars and gyms, re-closing bars and gyms and requiring people to wear masks in public.

Back in the early days of the outbreak, the White House coronavirus task force was meeting daily with President Trump, holding long televised briefings. But the president now increasingly downplays the seriousness of the virus. And the task force is meeting only sporadically, with decisions being made locally while the president is increasingly silent about the raging pandemic. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For the first time since late April, on Thursday, President Trump returned to the White House briefing room. But he wasn't there to talk about surging coronavirus cases as he had in that room so many times in March and April. He was there to talk about the jobs report showing millions of people back at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're going to have a fantastic third quarter. It'll be a third quarter the likes of which nobody has ever seen before, in my opinion. And the good thing is the numbers will be coming out just prior to the election, so people will be able to see those numbers.

KEITH: Reelection is at center stage.

STEPHEN MOORE: Trump wants to focus on jobs and the economy.

KEITH: Stephen Moore, who advises Trump on economic issues, says there's a reason the president isn't spending a lot of time talking about the pandemic.

MOORE: I think most people in the president's campaign and the president himself believe that the economy is what he needs to focus on if he's going to beat Joe Biden.

KEITH: When it comes to the economy, Trump accentuates the positive. And when it comes to coronavirus, when he talks about it at all, Trump downplays the negatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We have some areas where we're putting out the flames or the fires, and that's working out well. We're working very closely with governors, and I think it's working out very well. I think you'll see that shortly.

KEITH: This at a moment when public health experts are sounding alarms about cases in Arizona, Texas, Florida, California and beyond.

TOM FRIEDEN: We are heading in the wrong direction, and we're heading there quickly.

KEITH: Tom Frieden is a former CDC director who now heads Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, a global health nonprofit.

FRIEDEN: What we're seeing in the U.S. today is that the virus has the upper hand. And what we're not seeing is systematic regular information given to Americans about what's happening with the virus and where, what's happening with our response and how can we all make it better.

KEITH: In recent weeks, Trump has left the delivery of public health messages about the virus to others, including Vice President Mike Pence, who brought back coronavirus task force briefings after more than two months without them. A task force official tells NPR that while the group isn't meeting as frequently as it did in the early days of the pandemic, it isn't necessary because there are fewer urgent and immediate decisions to be made than when it all began. On Thursday, Pence met with Florida's governor in Tampa, a hot spot within a hot spot state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Governor, President Trump and I are absolutely committed to supporting your efforts to respond to this outbreak in Florida - to slow the spread, to protect the vulnerable.

KEITH: Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, took umbrage with the idea that Trump isn't doing enough on coronavirus, saying in a statement any suggestion that Trump isn't working around the clock to protect the health and safety of Americans is utterly false. During remarks Thursday about the jobs numbers, Trump did briefly come about as close as he ever has to encouraging people to wear masks, something more and more health experts and Republican politicians have been urging in recent days. Trump made news simply by mentioning masks in a list of best practices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: That includes face coverings, social distancing, testing and personal hygiene. Wash your hands.

KEITH: And just to make sure everyone noticed after Trump left without taking questions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pointed to the president's remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN MNUCHIN: The president specifically put in his speech encouraging Americans to wear masks, social distance and hygiene. Because he's the president of the United States and people are not around him close, and the people who are around are tested, I don't think he needs to wear a mask.

KEITH: The question is, if Trump's supporters don't see him wearing a mask, will they believe others who say it's important to slow the spread of the virus?

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T & THE MG'S "GREEN ONIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.