A defensive Donald Trump turned to heavily edited video clips to contend his coronavirus response was not as slow as Joe Biden and other leading Democrats contend, as he came to the White House briefing room itching for a fight.
The president snapped at reporters and vowed “our country is going to be open,” announcing his team is close to finalising a plan to reopen the country – even as states announce their own in a coming constitutional showdown about where the power to do so actually lies. The scene was remarkable, with a president overseeing a crisis response operation and facing tens of thousands of deaths yelling at reporters, seemingly more concerned with news articles and broadcast reports than any other matter.
“The president calls the shots,” Mr Trump said when asked to point to the part of the Constitution that gives him that power. Moments later, when asked how he would overcome, legally, part of the Constitution that states all powers not clearly given to the president fall to the states, Mr Trump answered with a political statement, saying any governor who does not comply what his coming order to open up the country could not win re-election. In a remark reminiscent of Richard Nixon‘s claim that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal,” Mr Trump said: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” That claim is false, as clearly stated in the Constitution.
The matter could well be headed for the courts in a high-stakes showdown just months before he again faces voters.
The video, which Mr Trump contended was made by government employees at the White House and not his media-savvy campaign staff, skipped though a timeline graphic that showed developments in January and February, but did not play comments from the president during those months. He spent much of both months downplaying the threat from the disease, saying it was like the flu and would “miraculously” disappear when the weather warmed up. He has since reversed himself on those statements, which were not included in the campaign-like video.
“Everything we did was right,” Mr Trump said, blaming state governors for “not having ventilators” and promising that the federal government has “10,000 that are ready to rock.”
In a twist, Anthony Fauci, the president’s top infectious disease expert, had a tense back-and-forth with a reporter about whether his attempts to clean up a Sunday television interview remark that prompted the White House to deny he might be fired. The exchange ended with Mr Fauci flashing an unkind look at the journalist during the start of a tense Covid-19 briefing.
The president spent a healthy amount of his opening remarks at his daily briefing defending the federal response he has overseen.
“On January 21, not one person has died,” Mr Trump said. “I’m supposed to shut down … the largest economy in the world?”
Before playing a number of video clips the White House put together touting his response, the president, in full campaign rally mode, said: “We’re going to get back to the reason we’re here.” Then the video played.
Yet, the lone comments from Mr Trump and his public health team played in the clips were from March, weeks after the virus outbreak went widespread from coast to coast.
He contended again that his decision to ban travellers from China, where the disease first went public, shows he acted “early.” That came amid more Democratic criticisms that his response was too slow, but the president came to the briefing room seemingly offended by media coverage of the federal response he is overseeing, saying: “I got brutalized by the press.”
Asked while standing mere feet from Mr Trump, who clearly wants to see the country opened up, what would be the economic effects of opening the country too soon – which could cause the coronavirus to spread – Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin chose to mention there would be economic harm also from opening it too late.