President Donald Trump on Wednesday clairified the White House’s plans to wind down his COVID-19 task force, attempting to balance his enthusiasm for “reopening” the country with protecting vulnerable Americans.
Trump appears intent on persuading Americans to ease restrictions, concerned about skyrocketing unemployment and intent on encouraging an economic rebound in the face of a potential economic depression that could also cost lives.
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Democrats criticized Trump’s reopening strategy Wednesday, saying more federal support for testing and contact tracing is needed. While the daily number of new deaths in the New York area has declined markedly in recent weeks, deaths have essentially plateaued in the rest of the U.S.
One day after the administration suggested that its work would be done around Memorial Day, Trump said the White House task force of experts and senior government officials would continue indefinitely. It’s simply shifting focus toward rebooting the economy and the development of a vaccine.
“I thought we could wind it down sooner,” Trump said, adding, “I had no idea how popular the task force is.”
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, acknowledged that signaling on Tuesday that the task force was preparing to shut down had sent the wrong message and created a liberal media frenzy.
While the task force has already been meeting less frequently, its medical experts, particularly Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, have emerged as among the most trusted voices on the virus response. The Tuesday announcement of ending the task force sparked concerns that they would be sidelined as the outbreak continues amid fears of a fresh wave of illness in the fall.
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Trump said Tuesday he would still seek their counsel, regardless of the fate of the task force.
“It is appreciated by the public,” he said of the task force.
Trump said membership in the group would change as the nature of the crisis evolves.
In Wednesday tweets, Trump said “the Task Force will continue on indefinitely.” He added that the White House “may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.”
Trump made himself Exhibit A for reopening the country with his Tuesday visit to an Arizona face mask factory, using the trip to demonstrate his determination to see an easing of stay-at-home orders.
“The people of our country should think of themselves as warriors. We have to open,” Trump declared as he left Washington on a trip that was more about the journey than the destination.
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Dr. Tom Frieden the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill that the “war against COVID will be long and difficult.”
“We’re just at the beginning of this pandemic and must focus on the future,” he testified, predicting there will be 100,000 deaths by the end of the month. As bad as the crisis has been, he said, “it’s just the beginning.”
In Arizona, Trump acknowledged there is a cost of returning to normalcy.
“I’m not saying anything is perfect, and yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon,” he said.
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Separately, Trump was asked on Tuesday about his statements in February playing down the threat of the virus. In an interview with ABC, he asserted that medical experts and Democratic leaders had also had underestimated the risk.
He added, “I want to be optimistic. I don’t want to be Mr. Doom and Gloom. It’s a very bad subject. I’m not looking to tell the American people when nobody really knows what is happening yet, ‘Oh this is going to be so tragic.’”
The Associated Press contributed to this article