Trump casts himself as savior after threatening to put millions at risk to reopen economy by Easter

After alarming health experts by calling to "pack" churches by Easter, the president reversed course

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published April 1, 2020 11:49AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

After alarming health experts by calling to "pack" churches by Easter, President Donald Trump claimed that he saved millions of lives by standing up to calls to lift coronavirus restrictions prematurely Tuesday during a two-hour news briefing.

Trump, who repeatedly compared the coronavirus to the "flu" and argued that the economic pain caused by social distancing restrictions was worse than the pandemic itself, declared that it was actually he who had stood up to those calling to lift the restrictions after the White House projected that 2.2 million people would have died without sustained intervention.

"Think of what would have happened if we didn't do anything. I mean, I've had many friends — businesspeople — people with great, actually, common sense. They said, 'Why don't we ride it out?' A lot of people have said — a lot of people have thought about it. 'Ride it out. Don't do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu.' But it's not the flu. It's vicious," Trump said Tuesday.

More than 2 million people "would have died if we did nothing — if we just carried on with our life," he said. "You would have seen people dying on airplanes. You would have seen people dying in hotel lobbies. You would have seen death all over."

Trump neglected to mention that he echoed his "friends" repeatedly as the death toll in the U.S. continued to rise.

"So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths," he tweeted March 9. "Think about that!"

"The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success," Trump said just last week. "The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than ever before!"

Asked about his attempts to downplay the virus, the president claimed that "people didn't know that much about it" at the time — even experts. In fact, the president continued to downplay the virus long after it became clear that it posed a threat to the U.S. and called to "reopen" the economy by Easter weeks after the White House became aware of the model projecting that 2.2 million people would die.

Trump criticized states like hard-hit New York for getting a "very late start" in combating the virus, even as he defended Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who has been under fire for refusing to order a statewide stay-at-home order to this day.

Pressed later in the lengthy briefing about his attempts to downplay the risks posed by the pandemic, Trump insisted that he "knew everything" but wanted to stay optimistic, because he is a "cheerleader" for the country.

"I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible. I knew it could be maybe good. I don't want to be a negative person," he said. "This is really easy to be negative about, but I want to give people hope, too. You know, I'm a cheerleader for the country. We are going through the worst thing that the country has probably ever seen."

But Trump's delayed action cost lives, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., claimed earlier this week.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, agreed that Trump spent "two months of completely ignoring every bit of scientific advice."

The White House ignored numerous warnings from intelligence agencies, health officials and even economists about the threat posed by the potential pandemic leading up to the outbreak.

"We've wasted two months," Jha told Business Insider. "And this is not a disease where you're allowed to waste two months."

Trump's reversal came after he was convinced by "reports about refrigerator trucks being used to hold the bodies of people who have died of the virus" and "recent polling [that] showed many Americans rejecting the idea that stay-at-home guidelines should be lifted quickly," The Wall Street Journal reported.

The news briefing, which came as the coronavirus death toll eclipsed that of 9/11 and the stock market logged its worst quarter since the 2008 financial crisis, marked a huge departure in the president's attempts to spin the deteriorating situation.

While the White House projections showed that between 1.5 million and more than 2 million people would die without sustained mitigation efforts, the health experts on the White House task force showed models projecting that between 100,000 and 240,000 people would die — even with extensive intervention.

"I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead," Trump said. "We're going to go through a very tough two weeks." 

"It's very much focused on the next two weeks, and the stark reality of what this virus will do as it moves through communities," Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the administration's task force, said.

"This is a number that we need to anticipate, but we don't necessarily have to accept it as being inevitable," added Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We can influence this to varying degrees."

Birx pointed to flattening numbers of cases in California and Washington, saying it showed "great hope about what is possible."

Though Trump extended federal guidelines urging people to stay at home until April 30, models suggested that the trajectory would stretch into June — and possibly beyond.

"There's no magic bullet. There's no magic vaccine or therapy. It's just behaviors," Birx said, explaining that if everyone adapted their behavior to the guidelines, it would change "the course of the viral pandemic."

"This is tough. People are suffering. People are dying. It's inconvenient from a societal standpoint — from an economic standpoint — to go through this. But this is going to be the answer to our problems," Fauci added. "Let's all pull together and make sure as we look forward to the next 30 days, we do it with all the intensity and force that we can."

Some in the media were struck by the "absolutely new message and tone from Trump" even though the briefing came just days after he berated reporters and argued that the "we can't have the cure be worse than the problem."

But others were more skeptical, given that the two-hour briefing took place months after Trump's attempts to spin the threat away.

"His weeks of denial, inaction and dangerous happy-talk — downplaying the threat, claiming the virus would disappear in better weather, saying it was no worse than the flu, hinting social restraints could soon be lifted — had done nothing to stop the lethal threat spreading across the country," Mother Jones' David Corn wrote. "Now that Trump could no longer pitch himself as the beautiful-economy president, he recast himself as the great lifesaver of America . . . If the coronavirus might kill 2.2. million, then what a hero he would be if it only claims the lives of 200,000 Americans. Should this come to pass, Trump will claim that 2 million Americans owe him their lives."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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