- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2020

President Trump forced White House reporters Monday to watch a campaign-style clip that argued the media got the coronavirus pandemic wrong and he got it right, riveting his core supporters in an election year while sparking cries the commander-in-chief let his need for praise turn a somber update into an unseemly rally.

Mr. Trump, who consumes a lot of TV news, stood to the side while he forced reporters to watch a three-minute clip designed to give a public spanking to media pundits who downplayed the risk to the U.S. right before the president restricted travel from China, the source of the outbreak.

A timeline of Mr. Trump’s response rolled across the screen, though it had a big gap between Feb. 6 and March 2, a period of scrutiny during which Mr. Trump held crowded rallies and made a short trip to India.

The clip then shifted to praise of his China ban from a New York Times reporter and clips of governors in both parties calling Mr. Trump and his team “outstanding.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Mr. Trump returns calls, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — another Democrat — said he appreciated the president’s efforts, although he’s critiqued the administration just as frequently.

“We were way ahead of schedule,” Mr. Trump said after the digital scolding. “Remember this, everything we did, I was criticized because it was too early.”

“I don’t mind being criticized, but not when they’re wrong,” he said.

Mr. Trump said the clip was “pieced together” by White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino “in a period of less than two hours.”

He said he has “hundreds” of other clips that didn’t make it into the final cut.

CNN and MSNBC cut away from coverage of the briefing, and the Democratic National Committee called the move outrageous.

“More than 20,000 Americans have died, hospitals and states still can’t get the supplies they need, testing is failing, and instead of updating Americans on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump commandeered the briefing to run campaign propaganda to soothe his small ego and pathetically try to cover up for his own failed response,” the DNC’s “War Room” said in a written statement. “It won’t work, and the American people deserve better.”

Mr. Trump’s supporters ate it up.

“OMG. Trump is using actual media clips during his press conference to clear up the fake news about the pandemic response. SAVAGE,” @thebradfordfile, an account that links to a conservative commentary site, wrote.

Mr. Trump has used the daily briefings to get in front the cameras nearly every day — he took Easter weekend off — after societal restrictions forced him to cancel rallies in an election year and relegated his presumptive opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, to his Delaware basement studio.

Yet Monday’s briefing had an unusual tone from the start, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top National Institutes of Health scientist, coming to the podium to clarify remarks to CNN that resulted in Mr. Trump retweeting a post that said “#FireFauci.”

The president said he won’t fire the doctor.

Mr. Trump, who says he’s a counter-puncher, seemed particularly set off by a New York Times story on Sunday that said the president was warned about the virus early in the year but wasted valuable time in late January and February.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly highlighted his decision to bar foreign nationals who’d been in China for the last 14 days, saying the outbreak would have been much worse.

“I think I’ve educated a lot of people as to the press,” Mr. Trump said.

The administration’s response, however, was dogged early on by notable steps in testing.

One early test failed, and bureaucratic rules kept labs across the country from making their own, forcing the administration to scramble to loosen the rules and get diagnostics out. Critics complained the country was “flying blind” as the virus spread, making it difficult to pinpoint and isolate cases.

As CBS reporter Paula Reid pressed Mr. Trump on his efforts to prepare in February — after the China ban and before the March closures — Mr. Trump said: “You know you’re a fake, you know that.”

The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December and killed thousands in East Asia before battering Europe and the U.S.

Nearly 575,000 people have contracted the virus in the U.S, and over 23,000 have died. About 330 million people live in the U.S.

Nearly a third of U.S. deaths have occurred in New York City, the epicenter of the domestic crisis.

Mr. Cuomo reported in 671 new deaths in New York state on Monday. It was lower than the increases from the previous few days but felt especially painful, as the world observed Easter.

“To have this happen over this weekend is really, really especially tragic,” Mr. Cuomo said at his daily briefing.

But the governor said there is definitely a “flattening” in metrics like intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and new COVID-19-related hospitalizations per day.

He said improving metrics are a direct result of the public’s abiding social distancing rules and other virus-related restrictions.

“The worst can be over and it is over unless we do something reckless, and you can turn those numbers on two or three days of reckless behavior,” he said.

It was a similar story in Louisiana, where officials on Monday said the death toll climbed toward 900 but the pace of deaths continued to show signs of tapering.

The number of hospitalizations, another closely watched stat, crept up to 2,134, an increase of just 50 people, while the percentage of those who need ventilators held steady at 21%.

From the White House, Mr. Trump pivoted from slamming the media to a dry rundown of his latest efforts to get help to the front lines.

He said remdesivir appears to be a promising drug therapy and cited the millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine that have been dispersed around the country. Mr. Trump has pushed the latter drug hard, citing anecdotal reports of people who got better and studies that looked at small samples of patients.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said the state is partnering with Sanford Health, a major rural health provider, to conduct a statewide clinical trial of the drug, enrolling up to 100,000 people with COVID-19.

“From day one, I’ve said we’re going to let the science, facts, and data drive our decision-making in South Dakota,” said Ms. Noem, a Republican and former congresswoman. “Throughout last week, I communicated with White House officials to let them know that South Dakota’s medical community was ready to step up and lead the way on research efforts.”

The day got off to an awkward start, however, as the White House was forced to downplay any rift between the president and Mr. Trump, who shared a post on Twitter late Sunday with the hashtag “#FireFauci.”

“Sorry Fake News, it’s all on tape. I banned China long before people spoke up,” Mr. Trump tweeted, as he shared a separate post that said it was time to get rid of the doctor.

The tweet led to speculation he would oust the doctor, who directs infectious disease research at NIH, has served six presidents and is one of the leading public faces of the federal response to the outbreak.

The reposted tweet was from DeAnna Lorraine, a former candidate for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s seat in California who got less than 2% of the vote in last month’s open primary.

Her post appeared to refer to comments Dr. Fauci had made earlier in the day about whether instituting social distancing measures earlier on could have saved more lives.

“Obviously, you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that,” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But what goes into those decisions is complicated.”

“I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different,” he said. “But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”

Corners of the conservative Twitter-sphere have scolded Dr. Fauci for weeks as being too willing to buck the president, with some claiming he’s part of a “deep state” that’s out to tank Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Dr. Fauci said he was answering a hypothetical as honestly as he could and that Mr. Trump never tried to overrule public health officials’ recommendations on shuttering the economy.

“The president went with the health recommendations,” Dr. Fauci told White House reporters.

The White House said Mr. Trump was trying to defend his own efforts in his tweet that led to the intrigue.

“It was Democrats and the media who ignored the coronavirus, choosing to focus on impeachment instead, and when they finally did comment on the virus it was to attack President Trump for taking the bold, decisive action to save American lives by cutting off travel from China and from Europe,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said. “Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted adviser to President Trump.”

Dr. Fauci, meanwhile, said his attempt to clarify things from the podium was by choice.

“Everything I do is voluntarily. Don’t even imply that.”

Dave Boyer and James Varney contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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