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Trump turned coronavirus briefings into the spectacle he craves

President Donald Trump at the White House briefing

President Donald Trump at the White House briefing on Thursday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Jim Watson

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The president's pandemic pulpit

Who said this? The president's marathon daily news conferences on coronavirus have become "less about defeating the virus and more about the many feuds of Donald J. Trump." He seems to view them as "a showcase for him." His "first-rate health experts have become supporting actors, and sometimes barely that." And "if Mr. Trump thinks these daily sessions will help him defeat Joe Biden, he’s wrong."

Those observations come from the Trump-friendly, influential-with-Republicans Wall Street Journal's editorial page. They were framed as constructive criticism. That's not how Trump took them. He tweeted in response:

"The Wall Street Journal always 'forgets' to mention that the ratings for the White House Press Briefings are 'through the roof' (Monday Night Football, Bachelor Finale, according to @nytimes) & is only way for me to escape the Fake News & get my views across." The kicker: "WSJ is Fake News!"

If Trump also sees the briefings as serving the American people at a time of trauma, fear and grief, he didn't say. But it seems he can't get enough of them, now that his campaign rallies have been socially distanced off the calendar.

The New York Times, citing data from a website that monitors every word from Trump, reported Wednesday that since mid-March, the average length of the briefings has grown from 61 minutes to 105, with the president’s speaking time increasing from 20 minutes per session to 53. With the sessions growing longer and Trump repeatedly straying from straight crisis updates to campaign-like speeches, CNN and MSNBC last week stopped carrying them in full.

That hasn't gone over well in the Trump White House, which wants all the unfiltered free airtime it can get with an audience made captive by coronavirus restrictions. CNN said Thursday morning that Vice President Mike Pence's office tried to pressure it to resume carrying the briefings without interruption by refusing for several days to let the nation's top health officials appear on the network. (Pence's office has since relented.)

The New York Times reported later Thursday that Trump allies and Republican lawmakers increasingly believe his performances are hurting him. Is it possible such misgivings are sinking in? Trump spoke for only about 20 minutes at Thursday's briefing, which began late, and then left, turning it over to Pence. Whether that's a new trend or a one-off will become clear in the coming days.

Janison: News you can't use

Trump's daily slurry of campaign speeches and pep talks seem to bear little relevance for anyone but the president’s die-hard fans, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

To most adults, efforts to spin current and future body counts in America would seem like a sad and less-than-inspiring exercise in trying to manage expectations — of himself. But here we are.

"If we could stay substantially under the 100,000, which was the original projection, I think we all did a very good job — even though it’s a lot of people," Trump said Wednesday. As we've seen before, the president has given himself high marks based on nothing.

Brighter days in May?

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday endorsed an optimistic prediction that the U.S. economy might reopen in May, while Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned against trying to return to normal too quickly, Politico reports.

Discussion of when a recovery could begin came as government data showed 6.6 million American workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the three-week total to 16.8 million. The U.S. unemployment rate in April could hit 15% — a number last seen at the tail end of the Great Depression.

During an appearance on CNBC, Mnuchin said yes when asked whether he believed there was a possibility "if the doctors let us, that we could be open for business in the month of May." He said the administration was doing everything it could to ensure that "American companies and American workers can be open for business and that they have the liquidity that they need to operate their business in the interim."

Powell, speaking to a Washington think tank, warned against a potential false start, where the country partially reopens and experiences another spike in coronavirus cases.

New York comeback hinges on testing

New York City could begin to ease some coronavirus restrictions in late May or June, Mayor Bill de Blasio said — but only if widespread testing of residents becomes available.

“We would need more testing. And we don’t have it yet,” de Blasio said, adding that the supply of test kits sent by the federal government is inadequate. “We have had to, from Day One, ration testing in a way none of us wanted to do,” the mayor said.

The Trump administration is pulling back federal support of testing sites by the end of the week, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One reason given by the agency is that simpler, self-administered tests have come into wider use.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, "Rapid testing and increasing our testing capacity is going to be the bridge to the new economy and restarting, but we also need to make sure we are learning the lessons of what we're going through now because we haven't finished going through it yet." More than 7,000 people in the state have died, including about 1,000 on Long Island, where the numbers are "creeping up," the governor said.

To begin easing restrictions, the city will have to see consistent improvement for two consecutive weeks in three data points: how many people are testing positive for COVID-19, hospital admissions and intensive care admissions.

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city's health commissioner, said that work-from-home recommendations would likely continue "for a long time." But if the indicators improve, some businesses could reopen, and the city might allow "some very small number of gatherings" while maintaining the face-covering guidance.

Joe's pitch to Bernie's fans

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, seeking to rally disappointed Bernie Sanders' supporters to his side, plans to roll out two proposals with progressive themes, The Washington Post reports.

The first is to lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 60 from 65. The other would forgive all student debt for low- and middle-income borrowers who attended public colleges or private historically black colleges and universities and private, underfunded minority-serving institutions.

Dreaming about summer vacation?

Dr. Anthony Fauci said summer vacations resembling those to which Americans are accustomed “can be in the cards,” but they'll need to be careful to avoid a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks.

Interviewed on "CBS This Morning," the government's top infectious diseases expert said: “If we do the things that we need to do to prevent the resurgence” of the pandemic, odds are that this summer will have the "trappings of normalcy."

When Fauci, known for his work ethic, was asked if he planned on taking a vacation this summer, he said that was out of the picture.

“I don’t take vacations,” he said.

More news on coronavirus

See a roundup of the latest pandemic news 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:

  • The Senate is deadlocked on an interim measure to add new money to the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package passed in late March, reports Newsday's Tom Brune. Democrats and Republicans rejected each other’s proposals in a short session Thursday.
  • A CNN poll found Biden leading Trump by 11 points — 53% to 42%. A Monmouth University poll saw a much closer race, with Biden up 48% to 44%. Both surveys sampled registered voters.
  • Staffers on Sanders' now-ended campaign were told Thursday that they will be kept on its health care plan through November.
  • Fauci said there should be permanent lessons learned from the pandemic. “One of them is absolute compulsive hand-washing,” he said earlier this week during a Wall Street Journal podcast. “The other is you don't ever shake anybody's hands. I don't think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.” (Listen to the podcast here.)
  • First lady Melania Trump wore a face mask in a tweeted photo to promote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's coronavirus prevention guidelines. Her husband hasn't appeared wearing one.
  • The White House conducted rapid coronavirus tests on all journalists slated to attend Thursday’s coronavirus task force briefing as a precautionary measure. Previously they underwent only temperature checks.

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