President said at coronavirus briefing that business and medical leaders will help him with ‘the biggest decision’ he’s had to make
David Smith in Washington – The Guardian
Donald Trump will next week announce a council of business and medical leaders to help him with the “biggest decision I’ve ever had to make” on when to reopen America for business in the midst of a global pandemic.
Facing criticism from traditional allies over his often combative daily coronavirus taskforce briefings, the president adopted a more emollient demeanour during Friday’s marathon two-hour-plus session.
Trump and his public health experts pointed to hopeful signs that the spread of the coronavirus could be slowing and the final death toll lower than once projected. This had fuelled reports that Trump is set to shift focus and appoint an economic task force.
“This is beyond economic,” he told reporters. “I call it the ‘opening our country taskforce’ or ‘opening our country council’ so we don’t get it confused with Mike’s [Pence] taskforce, which has done so great.
“And we’re going to have the great business leaders, the great doctors, we’re going to have a group of people. We’ll probably do it by teleconference because we don’t really travelling in for their own purposes. I don’t think it would look good, also.”
Trump added: “I want to get it open as soon as possible. This country was meant to be open and vibrant and great… The facts are going to determine what I do. But we do want to get the country open.”
He promised the council will be announced on Tuesday “with names that you have a lot of respect for, a lot of great names, different businesses, different people … I want their views on what they think”.
The current “stop the spread” federal guidelines finish on 30 April and pressure is building on Trump to reopen at least parts of the economy, which has gone into free fall and shed more jobs than in the 2008-09 Great Recession. But with infections approaching half a million, public health experts fear that pushing too soon could result in a second wave of cases.
America has tested less than 1% of its population, leaving it way behind other nations on testing per capita, yet Trump dismissed questions on this issue.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned on Friday: “We’re starting to see the leveling off … but it’s important to remember that this is not the time to feel that since we have made such an important advance in the sense of success of the mitigation that we need to be pulling back at all.”
Dr Deborah Birx, the response coordinator, added that as encouraging as the signs are, “we have not reached the peak, and so every day we need to continue to do what we did yesterday and the week before and the week before that, because that’s what, in the end, is going to take us up across the peak and down the other side”.
Trump promised to heed the experts. “I listen to them about everything,” he said. “I think they’re actually surprised. I have great respect for these people … We’re not doing anything until we know that this country is going be healthy. We don’t want to go back and start doing it over again.”
He acknowledged: “I don’t know that I’ve had a bigger decision. But I’m going to surround myself with the greatest minds. Not only the greatest minds, but the greatest minds in numerous different businesses, including the business of politics and reason.”
A reporter asked what metrics would be used to help Trump decide. He pointed to his head. Later he added: “I have a big decision coming up, and I only hope to God that’s it’s the right decision.”
Trump’s bombastic TV briefings have been compared to campaign rallies but normally supportive sources such as the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and the Wall Street Journal newspaper have warned that they are doing him more harm than good.
Perhaps stung, he reshuffled the order of speakers on Friday and adopted a more genial tone. “OK, it’s Good Friday so let’s be nice,” Trump said as he invited questions.
But he could not resist sparring with CNN’s Jim Acosta, an old foe, who asked: “We hear from a lot of people who see these briefings as sort of ‘happy talk’ briefings. And some of the officials paint as rosy a picture of what is happening around the country. If you look at some of these questions – do we have enough masks? No. Do we have enough tests? No. Do we have enough PPE? No.”
Trump snapped: “A lot of it is fake news … This is not happy talk. Maybe it is happy talk for you., It is not happy talk for me. We’re talking about the greatest economy in the world, one day I have to close it off. And we did the right thing because maybe it would have been t2 million people died.”
He added: “This is sad talk … These are the saddest news conferences that I have ever had. I don’t like doing them. You know why? Because I am talking about death.”