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Trump's (very) brief period of coronavirus mourning

Analysis: As the week began, the president quickly lamented the deaths of fellow Americans by the tens of thousands — and the economy he says he built.
Image: Donald Trump
Monday marked a rare moment in which President Donald Trump talked about the aspect of the coronavirus he has been least interested in talking about in near-daily briefings: death.Alex Brandon / AP

In most religions, mourning is a finite ritual. For President Donald Trump, it lasted just a few seconds Monday.

"We continue to mourn with thousands of families across the country whose loved ones have been stolen from us by the invisible enemy," he said of the human toll of the coronavirus at a Rose Garden news conference as he glanced toward the spot behind his podium where prepared notes usually sit. "We grieve by their side."

It was a rare moment in which Trump talked about the aspect of the coronavirus he has been least interested in talking about in near-daily briefings: death.

And then, in less time than it would have taken to read some of the recent reports about his neglect of the human toll of the pandemic and lack of empathy for victims, he praised several major corporations that are partnering with the government to ramp up production of testing for the virus.

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Despite the mortality, he suggested, the risk of the disease has been mitigated to the point that it poses less of a threat to Americans' security than the freeze in commercial activity that has contracted the U.S. economy.

"We want to reopen, and the testing is not going to be a problem at all," he declared, adding later that "the fact that people aren't allowed to have their freedom causes a tremendous amount of problems, including death."

Trump seemed to be building backward from the conclusion that stay-at-home orders have to be revoked. He had originally looked to the middle of this month as a target date for what he calls "reopening American again." But the most prominent medical professionals in his administration said that couldn't safely happen until testing was available widely enough to control a larger outbreak.

On Monday, with the top government infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, once again noticeably absent, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enumerated an eight-point checklist for reopening states. Seven of the eight items already had been accomplished, according to their slide presentation.

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But many experts not in Trump's employ say the nation's testing capacity is nowhere near where it needs to be for what the president envisions.

"No amount of happy talk ... is going to solve that," Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disease Preparedness and an NBC News/MSNBC public health analyst, said Monday on MSNBC. "We're trying to play catch-up, and it's too late to make that happen quickly."

Although Trump credits himself with a partial restriction on travel from China earlier this year, he was otherwise slow to respond to the threat of the virus. He made fun of Democratic critics who said he wasn't taking it seriously enough, accusing them of overhyping the risk for political gain.

Now he credits himself for avoiding the mass casualties that would have occurred without any action at all.

"We've lost a lot of people, but if you look at what original projections were — 2.2 million — we're probably heading to 60,000, 70,000," he said, tacking on an additional 10,000 lives, as though he was estimating a quarterback's career passing yards.

"It's far too many — one person is too many for this," Trump added quickly, perhaps recalling his opening remarks about grieving for the dead, before he pivoted back to lauding himself. "And I think we've made a lot of good decisions."

He had been asked whether he thought a president who had witnessed the deaths of more Americans in a span of less than two months than the U.S. suffered during the Vietnam War should be re-elected. In deflecting it, he raised what may be a more compelling question for voters: what his response to the crisis, both in actions and in words, says about his capacity to lead.

The economic calamity has robbed him of his chief talking point heading into November's election.

On Monday, he mourned that, too.

"I built the greatest economy in the history of the world,” he claimed.