A tale of two summers: White House diverges from health experts over what's to come

The president and his top aides are contending with public health officials who paint a less optimistic picture of a return to life as Americans knew it.

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — In the version of summer predicted by President Donald Trump and his top officials, life is back to normal and the coronavirus pandemic is mostly in the rearview mirror.

People will be gathering on the National Mall for July 4, the economy will be rebounding and the U.S. will be conducting millions of tests a day, according to comments they have made in recent days. By Memorial Day, "we will largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us," Vice President Mike Pence said last week.

"I think you'll see by June a lot of the country should be back to normal, and the hope is that by July the country's really rocking again," Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said Wednesday on Fox News.

But with Memorial Day less than four weeks away and no state meeting the White House's guidelines for when states can begin lifting restrictions, the administration is contending with public health officials who paint a less optimistic scenario for an imminent return to life as Americans knew it before the coronavirus.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the administration's coronavirus response coordinator, said Sunday that social distancing measures will still have to be in place over the summer even as some businesses start reopening. The nation's top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has cautioned that reopening the economy will be a gradual process, not like flipping a light switch, with the coronavirus still present in the fall.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

"Normal," other health experts caution, won't be likely until there is a vaccine.

"It will not look like normal. 'Normal' will never be a thing until we have a vaccine," said Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington, who has been working on a key model that the White House has been including in its projections.

The model, by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, projects that states can start easing but not totally eliminating social distancing requirements sometime from mid-May to late June. For example, Texas should keep social distancing measures in place until June 15 given the current trajectory of infections, and Massachusetts should do so until June 22 — weeks beyond Memorial Day.

The model projects that if states were to wait until those dates before easing up on some restrictions, the number of daily deaths nationwide would be down to the double digits by the end of May. But the model assumes that current social distancing measures are maintained until a specific number of infections for each state is met, which isn't happening, Mokdad said.

Instead, a number of states have already started to lift restrictions, so researchers are working to revise the model to account for the additional deaths over a longer period of time.

An administration official disputed the idea that there was any daylight between assessments coming from the president and those of top officials and health experts. The official said the expectation by both groups is that, by the summer, much of the country will "get back to normal even while keeping in place commonsense public health measures," although some states will take longer to recover.

"While there will be challenges ahead, we do believe the coronavirus will be largely behind us by Memorial Day, as the vice president said," the official said. "President Trump has stated repeatedly he believes governors are best equipped to make tailored public health decisions for their states, with baseline data and guidance by the CDC and White House."

Since the first recorded coronavirus infections in the U.S., Trump has painted overly optimistic scenarios of how events would unfold. He initially predicted that the virus would disappear by April, then that churches would be full on Easter Sunday. Last week, he estimated that the U.S. would have 50,000 to 60,000 deaths. As of Wednesday, the death toll had already exceeded 60,000.

Summer will be a crucial time for Trump politically. Historically, most voters make up their minds about their presidential picks by Labor Day, barring a major event that changes the political landscape — a time frame of which administration officials have said they are well aware.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

One challenge for the administration as it tries to present a more optimistic message is going to be managing expectations for the public, especially with some states starting to allow businesses to open back up sooner than others, said Jason Miller, a communications adviser for Trump's 2016 campaign.

"The definition of success and the definition of victory need to be clearly communicated to people," Miller said. "'Here is what we are trying to do. Here are the obtainable benchmarks.'"

The Trump campaign is actively planning to resume rallies by summer even if the events have to be smaller and held in places where infection rates are relatively low, campaign officials have said.

The hope among Trump's advisers is that while the country may still be struggling with record unemployment on Election Day, the numbers will have begun to improve — allowing the president to go into the final months of the campaign touting a "great American comeback" story, a White House official said.

It's a homestretch pitch that depends on the vindication of his team's sunnier summer narrative.