Three months and 80,000 deaths later, Trump returns to the coronavirus spotlight

The president was back in the White House briefing room boasting of his administration's pandemic response — while conceding the situation was worse than he'd predicted.

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By Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — Three months and tens of thousands of deaths later, President Donald Trump was back in the White House briefing room Tuesday boasting of his administration's response to the coronavirus while conceding that the situation is worse than he had previously acknowledged.

"It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better. Something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is," Trump told reporters. "It's the way — it's what we have."

Some elements of the president's performance were reminiscent of the last time Trump stood behind the podium in late April, such as his insistence that the virus would simply "go away" one day and the promise that a vaccine was coming soon. But it was clear at other times in his half-hour appearance that the country and the president were in a much different place.

Asked about using a mask, Trump pulled one out of his pocket. "I have no problem with the masks," he said. "I view it this way: Anything that potentially can help, and that certainly can potentially help, is a good thing." It was a noticeable shift in attitude from May, when he mocked a reporter for wearing a mask, saying he was doing so only to be "politically correct."

The pandemic was no longer just a "burning ember" that had to be put out, as Trump had predicted during a briefing in April. Now, he admitted, "we have embers and fires, and we have big fires, and unfortunately now Florida is in a little tough, or in a big tough, position."

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The optics and the mood of the briefing had also changed. Trump was no longer flanked by the doctors and public health officials leading the response, who had joined him at many of the earlier daily sessions. Instead, he took the dais alone. Asked where both of the top doctors involved in the response, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, were, he said Birx was "right outside" without mentioning Fauci or addressing why they weren't also taking reporters' questions.

This time, Trump generally stuck closely to reading from prepared remarks, as opposed to his mostly improvised comments during the past briefings. While the events during the spring often extended beyond two hours, he spoke for only about 30 minutes Tuesday.

His appearance was the result of weeks of debate inside the White House over how to shore up poll numbers showing sharp voter disapproval over his handling of the virus, rather than as a way to convey information to the public.

Trump had mostly stayed away from discussing the pandemic in recent weeks, even as the number of cases surged. White House aides had pushed to keep him distant from the response, hoping that by keeping him out of the day-to-day public narrative, the administration could "depoliticize" the pandemic, a senior administration official said this month.

Instead, Vice President Mike Pence was given the task of acting as the public face of the administration's response, traveling to the hardest-hit states to meet with governors and holding news briefings. It was the same role Pence had played in early March, before Trump decided to launch his daily briefings.

But some advisers, such as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, argued that Trump should be more visible on the issue, saying his approval numbers had fallen since he curtailed the daily appearances.

"His approval rating on the pandemic was higher when he was at the podium — it was 51 percent in March — and I think people want to hear from the President of the United States," Conway said last week in response to a question from NBC News.

Some Republicans remained skeptical that resuming the briefings was the right move. President George W. Bush's White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, tweeted earlier in the day that the move was "a mistake. That room is a hot spot." He advised Trump to "rise above" and speak past the reporters in the room. "Talk personally. Show you care," he wrote.

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The White House has been hoping to find a middle ground between the freewheeling, hourslong events in April and Trump's relative silence over the past months, an outside adviser said. With the pandemic dominating Americans' daily lives, Trump's move to mention the crisis only in passing has appeared out of touch, the adviser said.

In announcing Monday that he would resume the briefings, Trump described the sessions as a way to talk about the things he believes his administration is doing well and counter what he claims is an overly negative media narrative.

"I was doing them, and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching. In the history of cable television, there's never been anything like it, and we were doing very well," Trump said of the briefings.

"Frankly, a lot of the country is doing well. A lot of people don't say, as you understand, but we have had this big flare-up in Florida, Texas, a couple of other places. And so I think what we're going to do is I'll get involved and we'll start doing briefings."