WASHINGTON - One day after saying that the White House COVID-19 task force would be winding down, President Donald Trump said Wednesday it would continue indefinitely but focus more on rebooting the economy.
Trump’s reversal comes as deaths and infection rates outside of New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus, are rising even as states move to lift their lockdowns.
Trump tweeted that the special task force's focus now would be on "SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN."
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A White House official acknowledged on Wednesday that signaling that the task force was preparing to shut down had sent the wrong message and created a media maelstrom. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, said membership in the group would change as the nature of the crisis evolves.
On Tuesday, Trump had praised the task force for doing a great job, but said "we’re now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening. And we’ll -- we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”
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His tweet on Wednesday said “the Task Force will continue on indefinitely.” He added that the White House "may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.”
Trump made himself Exhibit A for reopening the country with his Tuesday visit to an Arizona face mask factory, using the trip to demonstrate his determination to see an easing of stay-at-home orders even as the coronavirus remains a dire threat. Trump did not wear a mask despite guidelines saying they should be worn inside the factory at all times.
“The people of our country should think of themselves as warriors. We have to open,” Trump declared as he left Washington on a trip that was more about the journey than the destination.
As Trump pressed the nation to reopen, Dr. Tom Frieden the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill that the "war against COVID will be long and difficult.”
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“We’re just at the beginning of this pandemic and must focus on the future," he testified, predicting there will be 100,000 deaths by the end of the month. As bad as the crisis has been, he said, “it’s just the beginning.”
In Arizona, Trump acknowledged the human cost of returning to normalcy.
“I’m not saying anything is perfect, and yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon," he said.
Trump had said he would don a face mask if the factory was “a mask environment,” but in the end he wore only safety goggles during a tour of the Honeywell facility. Nearly all factory workers and members of the press as well as some White House staff and Secret Service agents wore masks. Senior White House staff and Honeywell executives did not.
The CDC has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks when they can’t socially distance, such as in supermarkets, especially in places with high transmission rates. In the area where Trump spoke, a large video monitor listed safety guidelines, one of which said, “Please wear your mask at all times.”
Vice President Mike Pence created a stir recently when photos showed him maskless in a visit to the Mayo Clinic surrounded by hospital officials and doctors all wearing masks. He said that he hadn't known it was a requirement and that he is tested for the virus frequently. He wore a mask at an event a few days later.
The president spent about three hours in Phoenix, touring the Honeywell factory and holding a roundtable on Native American issues. Aides said the trip ws worth the nearly eight hours of flight time as a symbolic show that the nation is taking steps back to normalcy. The trip was also expected to be a marker of Trump’s return to a regular travel schedule, as he hopes the nation, too, will begin to emerge from seven weeks of virus-imposed isolation.
Trump sees economic revival as a political imperative, as his allies have noted an erosion in support in recent weeks. Republicans believe Trump’s path to a second term depends on the public’s perception of how quickly the economy rebounds from shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the virus.
The coronavirus task force has already been meeting less frequently. Its members have become fixtures on television sets across the nation, with Americans hungry for information and marooned at home.
Pence said Tuesday there had been conversations about “what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency by agency level.” He said the group could wind down its work by early June.
Separately, Trump was asked on Tuesday about his statements in February playing down the threat of the virus. In an interview with ABC, he asserted that medical experts also had underestimated the risk.
He added, “I want to be optimistic. I don’t want to be Mr. Doom and Gloom. It’s a very bad subject. I’m not looking to tell the American people when nobody really knows what is happening yet, ‘Oh this is going to be so tragic.’”
Colvin and Superville reported from Washington.