President Trump — who has repeatedly downplayed the virus, sidelined experts and misled Americans about its dangers and potential cures — now finds his presidency wracked by an inability to shepherd the country through its worst public health calamity in a century. The dysfunction that has long characterized Trump’s White House has been particularly ill-suited for a viral outbreak that requires precision, focus and steady leadership, according to public health experts, administration officials and lawmakers from both parties.
As case numbers began rising again, Trump has held rallies defying public health guidelines, mused about slowing down testing for the virus, criticized people wearing masks and embraced the racially offensive “kung flu” nickname for a disease that has killed at least 123,000 Americans.
A similarly garbled message for the country has also been put forward by the president’s top aides and other senior administration officials, who contradict one another on a daily basis. On Friday, Vice President Pence used the first White House coronavirus task force briefing in almost two months to praise Trump’s handling of the virus and cast aside concerns about a record spike in new infections.
“We have made a truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward,” Pence said, a few minutes after announcing that more than 2.5 million Americans had contracted the coronavirus. “We’ve all seen the encouraging news as we open up America again.”
Later Friday, the United States recorded more than 40,000 new coronavirus cases — its largest one-day total.
It was the latest example of whiplash from the Trump administration, which has struggled to put forward a consistent message about the pandemic. While public health experts urge caution and preventive measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, Trump, Pence and other top aides repeatedly flout their advice, leaving confused Americans struggling to determine who to believe.