President Trump held a press briefing on Wednesday evening focused on assuaging the concerns of Americans — particularly investors — over the threat of a coronavirus pandemic. While the briefing eventually devolved into the sort of back-and-forth with the press that we’ve grown accustomed to from Trump (meaning, among other things, a riff about why Trump deserved reelection), it began with a series of speakers clearly selected in order to offer useful information to the American public.
Several of the officials who spoke, though, seemed less concerned about containing the spread of coronavirus than with halting the propagation of criticism of Trump and the administration.
We took a rough transcript of the briefing and color-coded sections based on the focus of the speaker. Much of what was discussed, particularly from political appointees and elected officials, centered on defenses of Trump. Only later, when career health officials came to the lectern, was the information more broadly useful.
Some excerpts, identified by letter above, deserve special explanation.
A. Trump began by offering his condolences to the victims of a mass shooting in Wisconsin earlier in the day. The attack, he said, was committed by a “wicked murderer.”
B. In short order, Trump launched into a defense of his and his team’s response to coronavirus. Reporting has suggested that Trump has been frustrated with reactions to the administration’s efforts and he took advantage of the moment to offer a typically hyperbolic assessment of his performance.
“We have, through some very good early decisions — decisions that were actually ridiculed at the beginning — we closed up our borders to flights coming in from certain areas, areas that were hit by the coronavirus and hit pretty hard,” Trump said. “And we did it very early. A lot of people thought we shouldn’t have done it that early and we did. And it turned out to be a very good thing.”
The risk to the American people, he said, remained very low. This, too, has been an important message from Trump’s perspective, in part to quell concerns from markets about economic ramifications.
C. After walking through a broad description of those already infected, Trump described his efforts to get funding to fight the virus from Congress. The result was a quintessential Trump statement.
“We started out by looking at certain things,” he said, “that we’ve been working with the Hill very, very carefully, very strongly.”
He continued on to explain that he had recently learned that the seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people a year (which is true), apparently in an effort to suggest that existing viruses exact a much bigger toll. After explaining that there might be no broad spread of the virus (including asserting that infections in China have fallen) and hailing a study from Johns Hopkins identifying the United States as the best-prepared country for a pandemic, he announced that Vice President Pence would lead the effort to fight the virus.
D. Pence, by now familiar with how he is expected to fulfill his role, praised Trump.
“From the first word of outbreak of the coronavirus, President Trump took unprecedented steps to protect the American people from the spread of this disease,” he said. “He recounted those briefly, but the establishment of travel restrictions, aggressive quarantine efforts of Americans that are returning, the declaration of a public health emergency and [establishing] the White House Corona Task Force are all reflective of the urgency that the president has brought to a whole of government approach.”
E. He went on to explain what his role would constitute, including working with state and local leaders. After reiterating that the risk to Americans is low, he again directly praised his boss.
“The people of this country can be confident that under your leadership,” he said, “we will continue to bring the full resources of the federal government in coordination with our state and local partners.”
F. Pence introduced Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to address the situation. Azar, too, prioritized praise for Trump’s efforts.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe,” he began. “The president’s actions taken with the strong support of his scientific advisers, have proven to be appropriate, wise and well calibrated to the situation,” he added a bit later.
He praised health-care workers and local leaders, adding that “because of this hard work and the president’s leadership, the immediate risk to the American public has been and continues to be low.”
He then outlined what his department would be doing and described ways in which local organizations and leaders could prepare.
G. Azar introduced Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A career official, she briefly praised the containment strategy that was in place, before speaking at length about specific ways in which Americans could prevent the spread of the virus.
H. She was followed by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Also a career public servant, his comments were similarly focused on virus-related information. He walked through the expected timeline for a vaccine — significantly longer than what Trump had indicated — and to set expectations for treatment systems.
When Fauci was done, Trump stepped back up to the lectern and invited questions from the assembled reporters. Most of the questions didn’t focus on the virus specifically. Several focused on the markets, which Trump was happy to address.
At one point, Trump was asked if he thought that schools should be preparing for coronavirus outbreaks.
“I would think so, yes,” Trump said. “I mean, I haven’t spoken specifically about that with the various doctors, but I would think so, yes. I think every aspect of our society should be prepared.”
“I don’t think it’s going to come to that, especially with the fact that we’re going down now, that we’re going very substantially down, not up,” he added.
During the briefing, The Post reported that a new case had emerged in northern California that didn’t seem to be connected to travel to areas with known infections. That new case wasn’t discussed by Trump or the other officials.
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