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Analysis: As deaths mount, Trump tries to convince Americans it’s safe to inch back to normal

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WASHINGTON — In a week when the novel coronavirus ravaged new communities across the country and the number of dead soared past 78,000, President Donald Trump and his advisers shifted from hour-by-hour crisis management to what they characterize as a long-term strategy aimed at reviving the decimated economy and preparing for additional outbreaks this fall.

But in doing so, the administration is effectively bowing to — and asking Americans to accept — a devastating proposition: that a steady, daily accumulation of lonely deaths is the grim cost of reopening the nation.

Inside the West Wing, some officials talk about the federal government’s mitigation mission as largely accomplished because they believe the nation’s hospitals are now equipped to meet anticipated demand — even as health officials warn the number of coronavirus cases could increase considerably in May and June as more states and localities loosen restrictions, and some mitigation efforts are still recommended as states begin to reopen.

The administration is struggling to expand the scale of testing to what experts say is necessary to reopen businesses safely, and officials have not announced any national plan for contact tracing. Trump and some of his advisers are prioritizing the psychology of the pandemic as much as, if not more than, plans to combat the virus, some aides and outside advisers said — striving to instill confidence that people can comfortably return to daily life despite the rising death toll.

On Friday, as the unemployment rate reached a historically high 14.7%, Trump urged Americans to think of this period as a “transition to greatness,” adding during a meeting with Republican members of Congress: “We’re going to do something very fast, and we’re going to have a phenomenal year next year.” The president predicted the virus eventually would disappear even without a vaccine — a prediction at odds with his own science officials.

A White House spokesman defended the status of testing by pointing to comments in mid-April by two of the medical professionals on the task force, Anthony Fauci and Adm. Brett Giroir, saying there have been enough tests to safely reopen the country.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also backed the administration’s response, saying, “President Trump is committed to a data-driven approach to safely reopening the country. His steadfast leadership has saved American lives, and the American people recognize his leadership.”

Some of Trump’s advisers described the president as glum and shellshocked by his declining popularity. In private conversations, he has struggled to process how his fortunes suddenly changed from believing he was on a glide path to reelection to realizing that he is losing to the likely Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, in virtually every poll, including his own campaign’s internal surveys, advisers said. He also has been fretting about the possibility that a bad outbreak of the virus this fall could damage his standing in the November election, said the advisers, who along with other aides and allies requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The president is also eager to resume political travel in June, including holding his signature rallies by the end of the summer in areas where there are few cases, advisers said. Trump’s political team has begun discussions about organizing a high-dollar, in-person fundraiser next month, as well as preliminary planning about staging rallies and what sort of screenings might be necessary, according to Republican National Committee officials and outsider advisers. One option being considered is holding rallies outdoors, rather than in enclosed arenas, a senior administration official said.

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Officials also are forging ahead with the Republican National Convention planned for late August in Charlotte, North Carolina, albeit a potentially scaled-back version.

But Trump’s outward projections of assurance and hope masked the more sober acknowledgments of some outside advisers and experts who worry the number of deaths will either stabilize around 2,000 per day or continue to climb over the next month.

“The question is, will people become anesthetized to it? Are they willing to accept that?” said one adviser to the White House coronavirus task force who, like many others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters or offer candid assessments.

Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who has been informally advising Trump and his team, said making people comfortable returning to work and resuming normal activities will take a long time.

“I’m the biggest advocate for getting the economy up and running there is, but I have two relatives who think I’m crazy, and they’re not going out of their house no matter what,” Moore said. “Just because the president and governors open up a state doesn’t mean that commerce is going to instantly resume. It’s not.”

Inside the administration last week, there were roiling disputes over the data used by the government to track the virus as well as over possible therapeutics. The debates underscored the administration’s chronic challenges in managing the crisis, even as Trump pushes to reopen the economy.

During a task force meeting Wednesday, a heated discussion broke out between Deborah Birx, the physician who oversees the administration’s coronavirus response, and Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Birx and others were frustrated with the CDC’s antiquated system for tracking virus data, which they worried was inflating some statistics — such as mortality rate and case count — by as much as 25 percent, according to four people present for the discussion or later briefed on it. Two senior administration officials said the discussion was not heated.

“There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust,” Birx said, according to two of the people.

The flare-up came two days after it was reported that an internal government model, based on data from the CDC and other agencies, projected the daily death count would rise to 3,000 by June 1.

Redfield defended his agency, but there was general agreement that the CDC is in need of a digital upgrade.

Birx said in a statement: “Mortality is slowly declining each day. To keep with this trend, it is essential that seniors and those with comorbidities shelter in place and that we continue to protect vulnerable communities.”

That assertion is contrary to Johns Hopkins data, which shows U.S. daily deaths hovering close to 2,000 most days for several weeks now, and climbing higher some days last week. Many experts also believe coronavirus deaths are actually being undercounted, with mortality data showing that U.S. deaths soared in the early weeks of pandemic, far beyond the number attributed to COVID-19.

During the same meeting, the group also found itself in a robust debate over remdesivir, an experimental drug some administration officials are optimistic could help treat patients with COVID-19. Robert Kadlec, assistant health secretary for preparedness and response, said the government had shipped remdesivir to seven states — an announcement that surprised Birx and others, who felt it was premature because they had not yet determined which states needed the drug most.

“Why would you do that?” Birx asked, referring to the supply of the drug donated by its manufacturer, Gilead Sciences, according to someone with direct knowledge of the meeting.

The next day, Vice President Mike Pence, who oversees the administration’s coronavirus task force, grew frustrated when he asked for an update on distributing the drug and no one — including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — was able to provide one, saying discussions were still ongoing. On Saturday, HHS announced that another allocation of the drug would be sent to six states.

The task force’s new strategy came amid broader internal debate about the future of the Pence-led group. On Tuesday, the New York Times first reported that the administration was talking about dismantling the task force, which Pence confirmed to reporters shortly thereafter. The next morning, however, Trump announced on Twitter that the group would “continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN.”

Administration officials stressed that the public may have an outsized impression of the task force. Its purpose was largely to provide a centralized forum for analyzing virus data and crafting response plans, through daily Situation Room meetings, as well as to share information with the public through daily White House press briefings, while much of the government’s substantive work took place at various agencies. The goal behind disbanding the task force, officials argued, was simply to center all coronavirus efforts in the agencies where they could be handled more efficiently.

Whereas initially the task force found itself scrambling to deploy a whack-a-mole management effort, dealing with regular crises as they emerged — from coronavirus-infected cruise ships to the urgent need for ventilators — the administration now intends to shift its focus to what is says is more strategic longer-term planning.

“I think we’re in a really good position now to be able to look around the corner and set ourselves up for the fall,” said Katie Miller, Pence’s press secretary.

However, White House officials declined to provide any specifics as to what the long-term strategy is, what the different plans will look like, and who is leading the various efforts.

The task force had already begun to curtail briefings, following a disastrous performance last month when Trump suggested the idea of injecting disinfectants, such as bleach, to treat the virus.

Although Trump and his aides have boasted that the number of Americans tested continues to rise — the total was 8.4 million as of Saturday — allies and other public health experts bemoan the slow pace. They argue that the country could have tested far more people and initiated a contact tracing plan had the president and his team focused more strategically on that in recent weeks.

“It’s incredibly sad and it shouldn’t be the case,” a former senior administration official said. “We should have testing and contact tracing and we don’t. That’s a concern.” The official added, “You can’t have just whatever the shiny ball is today. You have to be able to do more than one thing at a time and deal with more than one crisis point at a time.”

More than anything, three advisers said, Trump is focused on how to turn the economy around and reopen the country, seeing a nascent recovery as key to getting reelected and his handling of the economy as one of his only strengths in the polls over Joe Biden.

“Given that we’re going to be at 15 or 20% unemployment, it is the direction of the economy, rather than the raw numbers of the economy, that I think voters will judge him on,” said Neil Newhouse, a prominent GOP pollster.

The president and senior White House advisers have begun holding meetings on a range of topics other than the coronavirus, such as a session Friday on the thrift savings plan in the Oval Office and a Monday session on health care.

Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has been running his own coronavirus effort, has begun interviewing candidates for a new position focused on finding vaccines and therapeutics, but some administration officials say it is another instance of Kushner stepping into territory he knows little about.

On Thursday afternoon, Trump huddled in the Oval Office with a mix of campaign aides and White House officials. No one wore masks, though campaign manager Brad Parscale did tweet a photo of himself in the West Wing sporting sunglasses and a white mask with red “Trump Pence 2020” lettering. Parscale brought five prototype campaign masks to show the president and is planning to send out 50,000 to supporters across the country.

As the president was updated on the Republican convention, various lawsuits the Republican Party and Trump campaign have launched against states over voting rules, and political ads attacking Biden over China, he appeared to be in a good mood, said three people familiar with the meeting.

But reality kept intruding. The same day, news broke that one of Trump’s personal valets, a Navy chief petty officer, had tested positive for coronavirus. And on Friday, Trump himself revealed the name of another White House staffer who had just tested positive for the virus: Miller, the vice president’s press secretary.

During McEnany’s press briefing Friday, Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller asked about the coronavirus cases that had infiltrated the White House, which for weeks has implemented temperature checks and virus testing for those close to the president.

“Why should the average American, whose workplace doesn’t have access to these rapid tests, feel comfortable going to work if the White House isn’t even safe?” Miller asked.

“As America reopens safely, the White House is continuing to operate safely,” McEnany said.

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