President Donald Trump on Friday broke a week-long public silence, appearing in the White House Rose Garden to tout his administration’s pandemic response even as the coronavirus rages across the country, with a record 153,000 new cases reported on Thursday, the seventh new high in nine days.
Trump again falsely claimed that the surge in virus cases is the result of increased testing and he highlighted the progress of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s vaccine development program, and the strength of the economy.
“The past nine months, my administration has initiated the single greatest mobilization in U.S. history, pioneering, developing and manufacturing therapies and vaccines in record time,” he said, adding that millions of doses of vaccine “will soon be going out the door” and that a vaccine could be widely available as early as April.
Trump took credit for Pfizer’s announcement this week that its vaccine candidate was more than 90% effective, claiming that the pharmaceutical giant had been part of Operation Warp Speed, despite its claims otherwise, because his administration in July had entered into a $1.95 billion deal to buy 100 million doses of a vaccine developed by the company.
Trump did not concede his election loss, but he came close to acknowledging that he won’t be president much longer while saying that his administration would not enter another lockdown: “This administration will not be going to a lockdown. Hopefully, the, uh — whatever happens in the future, who knows which administration it will be, I guess time will tell, but I can tell you this administration will not go to a lockdown.”
Trump took no questions from reporters.
‘Publicly disengaged’: Trump’s speech followed an unusual days-long stretch during which the president remained largely out of sight and reportedly showed “little evidence of -- or interest in -- governing in the wake of the election,” as ABC News put it.
Trump had made an appearance at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday to honor veterans, but he hadn’t spoken publicly or taken questions since last Thursday, when he told reporters that the election was being stolen from him. He has been active on Twitter, but his tweets have been focused on unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
“President Donald Trump has publicly disengaged from the battle against the coronavirus at a moment when the disease is tearing across the United States at an alarming pace,” the Associated Press reported Friday, adding that aides say the president has shown little interest in the pandemic as it worsens — even as numerous officials in the White House and his reelection campaign have tested positive for the virus over the last couple of weeks.
More than 130 Secret Service officers have reportedly been ordered to isolate or quarantine because they were infected or came in close contact with co-workers who had the virus, with the outbreak believed to be linked in part to Trump rallies over the final weeks of the campaign.
“The situation now is akin to a fire chief assuring people that the best approach to fires breaking out in an apartment complex is to let the fires burn themselves out while he provides them with fire extinguishers. And then not providing the fire extinguishers. And then spending most of his time tweeting about how he won the vote for best fire chief,” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes. “It’s a fierce competition, but this may define Trump’s legacy. He will be remembered as the president who faced a deadly crisis and decided to look away.”
The country can’t wait: Trump’s silence had drawn criticism from public health experts and others worried that his lack of action and unwillingness to coordinate with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team would hinder efforts to curb the spread of the virus and prepare for eventual distribution of a vaccine.
“It’s a big problem,” Dr. Abraar Karan, a global health specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told the AP. “The transition is not going to happen until January, and we are in a complete crisis right now. We already know where this is headed. ... It’s not good enough to say we’re going to wait until the next president to address this.”
What Trump could do: Bloomberg’s Josh Wingrove and Emma Court provide a number of suggestions from health experts. “The president could help by asking Americans directly to wear masks, encouraging Republican governors to do more to slow the spread, publicly backing health officials or even directing his staff to jointly coordinate with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, to ensure a smooth hand-off,” they write. “Trump has instead been absent. He’s discouraged masks and social distancing and is blocking the start of Biden’s transition while refusing to concede defeat, compounding the federal inaction.”
The bottom line: The vaccine development timeline truly is encouraging and remarkable, with the White House saying that two vaccines may be authorized for emergency use by the end of the year. But the pandemic picture stands to grow much worse by then, let alone a time when vaccines are widely available. “I fear the next three months ahead could be the worst we’ve faced during the pandemic,” Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University’s law school, told the Associated Press. “America is like a ship at storm, and the captain has decided to go play golf.”