WASHINGTON — After several months of mixed messages on the coronavirus pandemic, the White House is settling on a new one: Learn to live with it.
Administration officials are planning to intensify what they hope is a sharper, and less conflicting, message of the pandemic next week, according to senior administration officials, after struggling to offer clear directives amid a crippling surge in cases across the country. On Thursday, the United States reported more than 55,000 new cases of coronavirus and infection rates were hitting new records in multiple states.
At the crux of the message, officials said, is a recognition by the White House that the virus is not going away any time soon — and will be around through the November election.
As a result, President Donald Trump’s top advisers plan to argue, the country must figure out how to press forward despite it. Therapeutic drugs will be showcased as a key component for doing that and the White House will increasingly emphasize the relatively low risk most Americans have of dying from the virus, officials said.
For nearly six months the administration offered a series of predictions and pronouncements that never came to fruition. From Trump promising that “the problem goes away in April” and predicting “packed churches all over our country” on Easter Sunday to Vice President Mike Pence’s claim that “by Memorial Day weekend we will have this coronavirus epidemic behind us” to Jared Kushner’s pronouncement the country would be “really rocking again” by July because Americans were “on the other side of the medical aspect of this.”
This all followed the White House’s initial message in January that the virus wasn’t a threat at all. Asked if he was worried about a pandemic, Trump said at the time, “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
The message then morphed to the idea that the virus would be swiftly crushed by a robust federal response. “WE WILL WIN THIS WAR,” Trump tweeted in March.
Soon after, the president demanded governors open up their states and said he had the authority to force them to do so. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” he wrote on Twitter in April. Within days he decided to shift responsibility for the pandemic to the governors, saying, “The federal government will be watching them very closely and will be there to help in many different ways.”
In recent weeks, the message has been that the country is back, face coverings and social distancing are optional, even as the number of coronavirus cases across the country surged.
“We have to get back to business. We have to get back to living our lives. Can’t do this any longer,” Trump said in an interview with Axios last month before his campaign rally in Tulsa, where almost no one socially distanced and few wore masks. “And I do believe it’s safe. I do believe it’s very safe.” A number of Trump’s own campaign staffers and Secret Service agents contracted COVID-19 in Tulsa.
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Eager to move forward and reopen the economy amid a recession and a looming presidential election, the White House is now pushing acceptance.
“The virus is with us, but we need to live with it,” is how one official said the administration plans to message on the pandemic.
As often is the case with plans crafted for Trump by his aides, the question hanging over this effort is whether he will stick to the script. Trump said this week that he’s “all for masks,” after months of resisting pressure for him to embrace face coverings. Yet in that same interview with Fox Business on Wednesday, the president said the virus will “just disappear, I hope.”
That’s not the message senior administration officials said they’re preparing, and some of the president’s allies have cringed when he’s talked in the past about the virus disappearing, only to then see it further spread.
Next week administration officials plan to promote a new study they say shows promising results on therapeutics, the officials said. They wouldn’t describe the study in any further detail because, they said, its disclosure would be “market-moving.”
Officials also plan to emphasize high survival rates, particularly for Americans who are within certain age groups and don’t have underlying conditions. The overall death rate from COVID-19 in the U.S. has been on the decline. More than 130,000 Americans have died of the virus.
Trump is expected to be briefed by Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the most visible members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, before Monday on her assessment of new hot spots that she’s visited this week, including what governors have said they need and how the new surge is affecting minority communities, officials said. Birx was in Florida, Texas and Arizona this week.
One of the officials indicated that coronavirus task force meetings and public briefings will be more frequent — a shift already underway this week. Those meetings and briefings were daily for much of March and April, but they tapered off when Trump pivoted to focusing on the need to reopen the economy. Nearly 20 million Americans are now jobless and the unemployment rate remains in the double digits, despite a record drop in the past month.
Recent public briefings from the task force, so far, have taken place outside the White House complex. Members of the coronavirus task force, led by Pence, have taken questions from reporters five times in five different places, ranging from the Department of Health and Human Services to various Sun Belt coronavirus hot spots.
One official said moving the briefing locations is an attempt to minimize questions from the White House press corps. Another said it was also designed to prevent Trump from being tempted to take over the briefings.
Some of Trump’s allies had lamented that he was hurting himself politically by spending sometimes two hours at the podium sparring with reporters and often veering off topic, rather than conveying a specific message about the pandemic.
In recent days, however, Trump personally asked the task force to resume briefings but decided he would not participate in them, according to three White House officials.
The change comes as multiple recent national polls show Trump trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
On Thursday, the president claimed that when Pence held a recent call with governors and asked the state executives what they might need, none of them requested federal assistance.
“Not one governor needed anything. They don’t need anything. They have all the medical equipment they can have. Thank you, U.S. government,” Trump said.
But as Pence has crisscrossed the country this week, visiting places with virus outbreaks such as Dallas, Phoenix and Tampa, he has been quick to note several requests from the governors of those states in real time. For example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday expressed a desire to continue federal funding for testing sites in his state that was set at the end of June.
Pence agreed and promised to extend “that every bit as long as Texas wants us to,” noting that “this is all hands on deck” during a press briefing with other members of the coronavirus task force.
In Arizona on Wednesday, Pence noted Gov. Doug Ducey requested additional medical personnel during their meeting and the vice president subsequently “instructed the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security to move out immediately on providing the additional doctors and nurses and technical personnel.”
Throughout his travels, Pence has been accompanied by Birx, a trend that is expected to continue in the coming weeks, according to a person close to the task force.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, for his part, has been issuing dire warnings on the future of the pandemic from other perches. He testified on Capitol Hill this week that if current trends continue, Americans could see as many as 100,000 new cases daily.
In an interview with BBC Radio on Thursday, Fauci said: “What we’ve seen over the last several days is a spike in cases that are well beyond the worse spikes that we’ve seen. That is not good news, we’ve got to get that under control or we risk an even greater outbreak in the United States.”