By Peter Baker
By Tuesday, however, with more than 187,000 recorded cases in the United States and more Americans
The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours on Tuesday evening beside charts showing death projections of
A crisis that Mr. Trump had repeatedly asserted was “under control” and hoped would “miraculously” disappear has come to consume his presidency, presenting him with a challenge that he seems only now to be seeing more clearly.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” the president said, the starkest such effort he has made to prepare the country for the expected wave of disease and death. “We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”
Afterward, he added: “We’re going to start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel. But this is going to be a very painful — very, very painful — two weeks.”
Under the best-case scenario presented on Tuesday, Mr. Trump will see more Americans die from the
The lowest estimate would claim nearly as many Americans as World War I under President Woodrow Wilson and 14 times as many Americans as Iraq and Afghanistan together under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
A pandemic is not a war, of course. Mr. Trump did not choose to have a pandemic. But he will be judged on how he responded, and the reviews from many quarters have been scalding even as polls have shown rising public support. While he conceded the bleak picture more fully than before on Tuesday, he continued to rewrite the history of his handling of it.
Despite comparing it to the ordinary flu and saying for weeks that it would pass, the president insisted on Tuesday that he understood all along that it could be a killer of historic proportions. “I thought it could be,” he said. “I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good.”
Mr. Trump said he played down the seriousness of the threat because he chose to be positive. “I want to give people hope,” he said. “You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country.”
He said his friends in
“I’ve had many friends,
The president did not explain on Tuesday why testing was so slow, nor did he explain why he waited to recommend canceling large events, closing businesses and schools and limiting group gatherings until after governors began ordering it themselves. Nor did he explain why he publicly declared that the country could reopen as early as Easter, only to reverse himself days later, if he understood all along how bad the situation could get.
At the White House briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Fauci was asked whether the death toll could have been limited below the minimum 100,000 now forecast if social distancing guidelines had been put in place earlier. He said it depended on whether the virus had already arrived in the United States and spread further than was known early on.
“If there was virus there that we didn’t know about, then the answer to your question is probably yes,” he said. “Now, the only trouble with that is that whenever you come out and say something like that, it always becomes almost a sound bite that gets taken out of context.” Dr. Fauci added, “If there was virtually nothing there, then there’s nothing to mitigate.”
All of which is why public health experts have said that early widespread testing would have been so important. “In a perfect world, it would’ve been nice to know what was going on there,” Dr. Fauci told Jim Acosta of CNN, referring to the earliest outbreaks in Asia. “We didn’t, but I believe, Jim, that we acted very, very early in that.”
Mr. Trump asserted that had he not blocked many travelers from China, the United States would have most likely reached closer to the maximum projected death toll of up to 2.2 million. “When you look at it could have been 2.2 million people died and more if we did nothing, if we just did nothing,” he said, then he and the country “have done a great job.” In effect, he seemed to be setting up the argument that any death toll below that will be a validation of his handling of the crisis.
Mr. Trump and his administration have stepped up efforts in recent weeks, expanding testing and seeking to work with governors to address shortages of ventilators, masks and other medical equipment. The president has dispatched medical ships and Army engineers to help, and after flirting with an early
For much of Tuesday’s marathon two-hour and 11-minute briefing, the longest single public appearance of his presidency, according to Factba
He jousted to some degree with Mr. Acosta and Yamiche Alcindor of “PBS NewsHour,” two of his favorite foils, but he was more restrained with them than usual and avoided some of the more incendiary language he often uses.
Yet he could not resist for long. By the time the briefing ended, he had lapsed back into complaints about the impeachment “hoax” and renewed attacks on critics like James B. Comey, the former F.B.I.
Still, Mr. Trump, rarely a reflective person in public, mused about the human toll of the pandemic more than he had in the early weeks of the crisis because apparently it has hit his own circle. As he
“When you send a friend to the hospital and you call up to find out how is he doing,” Mr. Trump said, “it happened to me where goes to the hospital, he says goodbye, sort of a tough guy, a little older, a little heavier than he’d like to be frankly and you call up the next day, how is he doing? And he’s in a coma. This is not the flu.”