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Amid rising virus toll, Trump keeps eye on another pandemic stat: his TV ratings

President Donald Trump at a White House briefing

President Donald Trump at a White House briefing on Sunday. Credit: Getty Images / Tasos Katopodis

Newsday is opening this story to all readers so Long Islanders have access to important information about the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates.

Forever a 'wartime president' vs. media

Stuck in the White House for another Sunday afternoon, Trump found a way to keep in touch with his normal routine: He went on a Twitter tear against the media and boasted triumphantly about the high ratings for his coronavirus briefings.

"The Lamestream Media wants us to fail. That will NEVER happen!" Trump said. Given that people in the news industry are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 and fearing for their loved ones just like anyone else, rate that extremely false.

Trump also caught up with a New York Times story posted last week about the ratings for his televised briefings. Ratings have been a key yardstick of success for him both during and since his days hosting "The Apprentice." So the president banged out four celebratory tweets. 

"Because the 'Ratings' of my News Conferences etc. are so high, 'Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers' according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY," one tweet said. The president appended what appeared to be a made-up quote that's not in the story. “ ‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.’ said one lunatic," the president wrote. (Watch Trump talking later about his ratings during Sunday's briefing.)

Of course, Trump's war against the news media began long before the coronavirus crisis, and The Washington Post reported Sunday on how it has colored his response. Four of the president's advisers told the paper that Trump’s initial downplaying of the deadly threat was due in part to his belief, encouraged by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that the media was using it as a new way to attack him.

Trump insiders believe criticizing the media serves him well with his base. “There is no question that the hostility of the mainstream media toward the president is something that gets the president’s supporters fired up,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s 2020 campaign.

Trump's first press secretary, Sean Spicer, doesn't disagree — after all, he became famous for his tirades claiming the size of the 2017 inauguration was underreported. However, Spicer doesn't see the ongoing attacks as a wonderful thing. “I don’t think it’s good for democracy that we’re branding an entire industry as an enemy,” he told the Post. “But is it effective? I think so. I’m not saying it’s right.”

Hitting home

If his ratings comments were crass, there was a poignant counterpoint in Sunday's briefing as Trump voiced horror at the "body bags" coming from a place he said he knows, the Elmhurst Hospital Center in his native Queens.

"These are trucks as long as the Rose Garden, and they're pulling up to take out bodies," Trump said. Thirteen people died of COVID-19 at Elmhurst in a single 24-hour period last week.

“I’ve been watching that for the last week on television,” he said. "Body bags all over, in hallways. I’ve been watching them bring in trailer trucks — freezer trucks, they’re freezer trucks, because they can’t handle the bodies, there are so many of them."

If it's April, stay home

Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that the virus could kill anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 Americans and infect millions more. Trump had no argument with that after hearing the latest statistical models from Fauci, the federal government's top infectious diseases official, and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx.

Trump said he has given up on hopes to start relaxing stay-at-home guidelines by Easter Sunday, April 12. "That was just an aspiration," the president said at Sunday's briefing. He extended the federal government's initial 15-day social distancing plan through April 30. "The peak, the highest point of death rates … is likely to hit in two weeks," Trump said. “Nothing will be worse than declaring victory before the victory was won.”

Also on the shelf is an idea Trump floated in a letter to governors last week about rating America's counties as high, medium or low risk to allow for easing guidelines in less affected places sooner.

Rejecting calls from some on the right to just ride out the pandemic, the president said data suggested that up to 2.2 million people would die if nothing was being done to stem the virus.

Trump said the country would be doing well if it “can hold” the number of deaths “down to 100,000,” adding, "It’s a horrible number.” By June 1, he said, the country “will be well on our way to recovery.”

Janison: Not helping

The massive federal government under the Trump administration is undoubtedly helping millions of people in this emergency. Not helping much, writes Newsday's Dan Janison, are Trump's sideshows.

Trials of antimalarial drugs might provide answers in COVID-19 treatment, but it's still too soon to know, and they can be dangerous when misused. The president didn't know either as he touted them in the style of some late-night infomercials.

Trump voiced skepticism without explanation on why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs as many as 40,000 ventilators and got his enablers to suggest that if there's a shortage, it's Cuomo's fault. But Fauci said Sunday: "There are a lot of different calculations. My experience, I tend to believe Gov. Cuomo."

None of these disconnects at the top produces prompt, practical help for anyone. But it does put extra media focus, relevant or not, on the president.

Helter-skeltering in place

Trump's penchant for thinking out loud caused another spasm of confusion on Saturday, when he told reporters was considering a two-week quarantine of New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut. He followed up with a tweet that a "decision will be made, one way or another, shortly."

Hours passed without any clarity on what Trump meant. Cuomo said that roping off states would amount to “a federal declaration of war” against them and would be illegal, economically catastrophic, “preposterous” and shortsighted when other parts of the United States are seeing cases rise.

On Saturday evening, via tweet, Trump backed away: "On the recommendation of the White House CoronaVirus Task Force, and upon consultation with the Governor’s of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I have asked the @CDCgov to issue a strong Travel Advisory, to be administered by the Governors, in consultation with the … Federal Government. A quarantine will not be necessary."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the task force unanimously opposed the quarantine idea.

Rising in the fall?

Trump’s top economic advisers on Sunday sought to project confidence that the economy would rebound in response to the recently passed $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Mnuchin said on "Fox News Sunday" that he was uncertain when soaring unemployment numbers would start to level off, but he insisted “we're going to kill this virus, reopen the economy and in the third quarter the economy will bounce back.”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told ABC’s “This Week” that the package passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump last week “may not be perfect, but I think it's going to give a tremendous amount of resources to get us through what we still believe is going to be a question of weeks and months.”

Don't expect instant relief

The $2.2 trillion emergency package offers New Yorkers hit hard by the pandemic tens of billions of dollars in relief, but in most cases they must take the first step by asking for it, reports Newsday's Tom Brune.

The IRS automatically will send $1,200 to individuals and $2,400 to couples that qualify. according to Mnuchin. But it will be up to laid-off or furloughed workers, struggling small businesses and nonprofits and battered large corporations to apply for most of the relief package’s benefits.

The aid categories include expanded unemployment insurance, small-business help, nutrition and food assistance, FEMA disaster funds, hospital reimbursements, school and college funds and big business.

Brune noted that the $800 billion stimulus passed in 2009 for the Great Recession and the $60 billion package for superstorm Sandy offer cautionary tales on just how long it can take big government to deliver big money.

Yes, thanks are necessary

Trump tried to backpedal from comments he made on Friday that if governors seeking federal help for the outbreak "don't treat you right," they shouldn't get callbacks from him or Vice President Mike Pence. He had told Fox News’ Sean Hannity: "I say, 'Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.’ ”

Trump on Sunday called verbatim reports of his Friday quotes "fake news." Trump's revised version is that while he doesn't call governors like Washington's Jay Inslee or Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer, "Mike Pence calls. And the head of FEMA calls."

Trump also said Sunday: "When they disrespect me, they're disrespecting our government."

All the coronavirus news

For a roundup of major pandemic developments, see the story from Newsday's reporting staff, written by Vera Chinese and Lisa Colangelo.

For a complete list of Newsday stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Trump voiced suspicion about a massive increase in orders for surgical masks at New York hospitals, insinuating they were being stolen in inside jobs — "going out the back door." He offered no evidence but suggested that reporters and New York officials "look into it." Why he wouldn't ask federal law enforcement to do so was unclear.
  • Criticizing Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said he would have pushed for more testing kits, hospital beds and protective equipment to combat the virus if he were in the White House. See Newsday's story by Thomas Maier.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attacked Trump for issuing a signing statement that would limit congressional oversight over the $2.2 trillion relief package, including the disbursements to big business. "We don’t accept that. We will have our oversight," she said.
  • Trump's campaign is discussing the possibility of a rally-style event in one of the states less affected by coronavirus in late April, The New York Times reported. But Democrats are doubting they can hold their national convention as scheduled in July as the duration of the campaign season shrinks.
  • Cuomo announced Saturday that the New York presidential primary will be pushed back from April 28 to June 23 because of the pandemic. The governor moved the timing of the primary to align with the congressional and legislative primaries in the state. See the story from Newsday's reporting staff, written by Craig Schneider.
  • Amid reports that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have moved to Los Angeles, Trump tweeted "the U.S. will not pay for their security protection. They must pay!” The couple said through a representative that they "have no plans to ask the U.S. government for security resources. Privately funded security arrangements have been made."

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