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Hello, stranger: Trump belatedly recognizes coronavirus truths

President Donald Trump holds a face mask at

President Donald Trump holds a face mask at his resumed coronavirus briefing Tuesday. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

'Will probably get worse'

While President Donald Trump wasn't admitting how wrong he has been on so much about the coronavirus pandemic, he appears to have concluded it is politically unsustainable for him to stay so wrong. “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 said at his first White House coronavirus briefing in almost three months.

Trump said he still believes the virus will "disappear," though he no longer puts a date on the prediction, like when he said "in April." Yet he tacitly acknowledged that the crisis wouldn't be brought to its end just by pushing states to reopen before it was smart to do so, or cheering on protests by his supporters who resist such measures as wearing masks. 

"Get a mask," said Trump, who pulled one from his pocket during the briefing Tuesday, though he said he didn't put it on because everyone in the room had been tested. "Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. And we need everything we can get." He added: "Anything that potentially can help … is a good thing." (See a video clip.) Only days ago, he insisted to Fox News' Chris Wallace: "Masks cause problems too." In May, he mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask in a public appearance. Last month, Trump said people "could be" wearing face coverings to show they were anti-Trump.

A month ago, Trump was upset that the crowd wasn't packed enough at his first pandemic-era rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On Tuesday, he admonished young people to observe social distancing, "avoid packed bars and other crowded indoor gatherings. Be safe and be smart."

He still boasted about testing but didn't repeat his frequent head-scratcher complaint that more testing caused the surge in cases, and he acknowledged bipartisan criticism of delays processing lab results. “We’ll be able to get those numbers down,” Trump said, by making rapid point-of-care tests like those used at the White House more widely available.

The briefing was a departure in style and tone from those of March and April, which sometimes ran for two hours. On Tuesday, he spoke for 30 minutes. He took questions from reporters about the contradictions in his policies and pronouncements without snarling that they were "nasty." He refrained from campaign-style partisan attacks. But he also appeared by himself, instead of sharing the platform with health experts who enjoy stronger public trust, a sign of political calculation to try to show he's in command.

Given that aim, Trump didn't steer clear of self-congratulations. "We've done much better than most" other countries in coping with COVID-19, he insisted, though by many measures the U.S. is among the world's worst. "We keep doing the good job, and things will get better and better," he said. Does he expect voters will judge him in November based on his performance handling the pandemic? "Among other things," he replied.

Best wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell

The briefing took a strange turn when Trump was asked about the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is charged with alleged partnership in the sex trafficking of underage girls with the now-deceased investment mogul Jeffrey Epstein.

Specifically, Trump was asked, "Do you feel that she's going to turn in powerful men?" Trump responded with sympathy for Maxwell, who is being held without bail.

"I haven't really been following it too much. I just wish her well, frankly," he said. In the past, Trump socialized frequently with both Epstein and Maxwell, and they were often photographed together. “I’ve met her numerous times over the years, especially since I lived in Palm Beach, [Florida,] and I guess they lived in Palm Beach,” Trump said.

The president's remarks confounded some of his followers in the QAnon conspiracy cult who are convinced Trump has secret plans to blow the lid off a global child-sex ring, according to an NBC News reporter who tracks the movement.

Census move make any sense?

The Supreme Court last year stopped Trump from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. On Tuesday, Trump signed a memorandum that would bar immigrants in the country illegally from being counted in the process that determines how many House seats are apportioned to each state.

Aside from the certain court challenges, there are practical problems too. The census is well underway, with more than 90 million responses as of last month. Trump's memo does not say how the U.S. Census Bureau is supposed to sort out citizens from those who are not while the agency is not asking about their status. 

Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said Trump's demand is "blatantly unconstitutional." The federal government, she said, "has a constitutional obligation to count all people living in the United States, whether they are citizens or noncitizens, whether they were born in the United States or in a distant part of the world."

But if it doesn't accomplish anything else, Trump has given himself a campaign talking point. He said "the radical left" is trying to "conceal the number of illegal aliens in our country" to "erode the rights of Americans citizens." Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said, "We will see him in court, and win, again.”

Janison: The gang at Trump 2020

When the gates swung open for a new campaign manager at Trump 2020, a figure in New Jersey's infamous Bridgegate scandal walked through.

As Newsday's Dan Janison writes, Bill Stepien is a former political aide to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who memorably took a hit in the "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" affair. A federal prosecution witness testified in 2016 that Stepien was aware of the political-revenge lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as they were happening in 2013, though he wasn't charged.

On Jan. 7, 2014, Christie nominated Stepien to be chairman of the New Jersey GOP. Two days later, Christie asked him to withdraw his name, saying he'd lost confidence in him. It turned out that earlier, while working on Christie's reelection campaign, Stepien was romantically involved with Bridget Kelly, his replacement as Christie's deputy chief of staff.

But Stepien passes the Trump campaign's character test, as did predecessors from the 2016 team, like Paul Manafort, recently released from prison early because of the pandemic; Roger Stone, spared prison by a Trump commutation of his sentence; and Michael Cohen, who later turned on Trump and went to prison.

Pentagon alarm at militarized look in cities

U.S. military officials resisted Trump's plan to deploy active-duty troops to quell protests in the weeks after the George Floyd killing, and the scenes from Portland, Oregon, are disturbing them again.

A spokesman for Mark Esper said Tuesday the defense secretary has raised concerns within the administration about federal agents patrolling streets of U.S. cities in camouflage uniforms similar to those worn by troops in war zones, Politico reported. The federal officers wore no clear insignia, and Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman urged efforts to distinguish more clearly between the two.

Far from backing down, the administration plans to send federal agents to Chicago to respond to gun violence, The Associated Press reports. And Trump said they could be deployed elsewhere in Democratic-run cities as he makes law and order a central element in his struggling reelection campaign.

State and local officials charge that the federal agents rounding up protesters and spraying tear gas and rubber bullets have operated beyond their jurisdiction to protect federal properties. Demonstrations in Portland have only grown in response to the militarized federal presence. Marcy Widman, 79, who took to the streets there for her first time Monday, said of Trump: "That he can pick on our city mostly because of the way we vote and make an example of it for his base is very frightening.”

Former FBI Director James Comey, in a Washington Post op-ed, said federal officials are giving the faction of protesters "itching for street confrontations … what they want" and the rest of us "what we don’t want: the specter of unconstrained and anonymous force from a central government authority. It has been the stuff of American nightmares since 1776."

Trump's business errand for envoy?

The U.S. ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, told colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in London in February 2018 that Trump had asked him to see if the U.K. government could help steer the world-famous and lucrative British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, The New York Times reported.

Johnson went ahead and made inquiries even after his deputy warned it would be an unethical use of the presidency for Trump's personal business interests, the report said. The U.K. government said there was no official request, but it did not address whether the issue was raised. None of the next four British Opens are scheduled to be played at Turnberry.

The deputy, Lewis A. Lukens, took his concerns to the State Department, the report said. Later, Johnson forced Lukens out before his term was to end. Declining to comment were the White House, the State Department and Johnson, a billionaire pharmaceutical heir who is owner of the New York Jets.

Biden plan for kids, elderly

Biden unveiled a $775 billion, 10-year plan on Tuesday to create 3 million jobs and improve care for children and the elderly. It includes increased tax credits for low-income families as well as enhanced caregiving services for veterans, seniors and preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

“This is about easing the squeeze on working families” and showing families the “dignity and respect they deserve,” he said during a speech in New Castle, Delaware. It’s the third plank of Biden’s larger economic recovery plan.

Biden said he is addressing needs that Trump hasn't. “For all his bluster about his expertise about the economy, he’s unable to explain how he’ll help working families hit the hardest,” Biden said. He added that Trump's handling of the pandemic “failed his most important test as an American president: the duty to care for you, for all of us.”

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Defying Trump, the House passed a $741 billion defense policy bill that calls for removing the names of Confederate leaders from military bases. The 295-125 vote indicates there is more than the two-thirds support, at least in that chamber, that would be needed to override Trump's threatened veto. The bill next goes to the Senate, where there is some Republican support.
  • Michael Cohen's forthcoming book will allege that Trump has made racist comments about his predecessor Barack Obama and the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, according to court filings on behalf of the president's former personal lawyer, The Washington Post reports. Cohen's suit contends he was tossed back in prison as retaliation for seeking to publish his memoir before November's election.
  • Trump tweeted a blast at San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler and several players for taking a knee during the national anthem at recent exhibition games in solidarity with Black victims of police brutality. “Looking forward to live sports,” Trump wrote Tuesday, “but any time I witness a player kneeling during the national anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!”
  • The Republican National Committee is buying up copies of Donald Trump Jr.'s new book due out next month, "Liberal Privilege," as a lure for donors who give at least $75, according to Politico. The committee spent over $100,000 on his last book, "Triggered."
  • A Maine brewery canceled a scheduled Trump campaign event after the owners said they were misled about its scope, Bangor Daily News reported. Brad and Nancy Nadeau said they were told that a few staffers would drop in for beers. Instead, the campaign made it a stop for a “Women For Trump” bus tour.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci took mild exception to Trump's recent disparagement of him as "a little bit of an alarmist." Fauci told CNN: "I consider myself more a realist than an alarmist."

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