Trump’s Coronavirus Briefings ‘Not Worth the Time.’ But He Couldn’t Stay Away

WASHINGTON — To the surprise of exactly no one, President Trump resumed his daily coronavirus news briefings on Monday, just two days after tweeting that they were “not worth the time & effort” and just hours after his own White House officially canceled the planned appearance.

The lure of cameras in the Rose Garden proved too hard to resist. For a president who relishes the spotlight and spends hours a day watching television, the idea of passing on his daily chance to get his message out turned out to be untenable despite his anger over his coverage. And so he was back, defending his handling of the pandemic and promising to reopen the country soon.

The on-again, off-again, on-again session was on the more sedate side of the spectrum seen in the six weeks since the president began commanding a slice of the homebound nation’s viewing attention almost every day right before family quarantine dinners. But even as he talked about the crisis that has killed almost as many Americans as the Vietnam War, Mr. Trump attacked “Sleepy Joe” Biden, complained about being persecuted and made some of his favorite false claims.

He promoted his administration’s record on responding to the pandemic despite widespread criticism, blamed China for not stopping the virus in the first place, suggested he was open to suing states for imposing restrictions embraced by his own public health advisers and predicted an “incredible fourth quarter” of economic growth and recovery from the collapse of the economy.

He largely avoided the sort of anger he had displayed in recent days, even for questions that would often provoke a sharp response. Asked if a president should be re-elected after so many Americans died in a matter of weeks, he argued that he had prevented it from being worse.

“Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of people,” he said. “But if you look at what original projections were, 2.2 million, we’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000. It’s far too many. One person is too many for this. And I think we’ve made a lot of really good decisions.”

Pressed on his offhand suggestion last week that ingesting or injecting disinfectant could counter the virus, a comment that set off warnings by health agencies that doing so could be fatal, the president brushed it off quickly and moved on.

“I can’t imagine why,” he said when told that some Americans might try it, putting their lives at risk. Asked if he took responsibility, he said, “No, I don’t.”

The furor over the disinfectant comments, which the president later claimed were sarcastic, prompted deep anger last week. Mr. Trump then spent much of the weekend railing on Twitter about the news media, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and even the usually friendly Fox News when it proved insufficiently loyal by airing even a bit of criticism. He opted not to hold briefings on Saturday or Sunday even though for the most part he has been doing them seven days a week.

“There has never been, in the history of our Country, a more vicious or hostile Lamestream Media than there is right now, even in the midst of a National Emergency, the Invisible Enemy!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday morning. “FAKE NEWS, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” he added.

But Mr. Trump hates being seen as managed by his staff, and once he saw some of the television coverage reporting that his own aides thought he should hold fewer briefings, he decided to host a briefing on Monday anyway.

The reversal, in less than two hours, was framed as an announcement of new testing guidance that was actually slated to be put out by lower-level officials. But Mr. Trump decided to bring along corporate executives he had met with just beforehand and have them take the microphone one after another to highlight their efforts to combat the virus.

Some of his allies had been relieved when he passed on any appearances over the weekend and initially canceled Monday’s briefing, hoping that he was coming around to their view that a more disciplined approach would be better. Other Republicans had urged the White House not to have the president brief every day and to limit those sessions he did to more like 30 minutes, which would hone the message and limit the off-script collateral damage.

“Standing at that podium for more than 30 minutes is kind of like being at a bar after 2 a.m.,” said Ari Fleischer, who was a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “All the good stuff has probably happened by now and the only thing left is going to be bad. So get out of the bar — or get off the podium after about 30 minutes.”

Mr. Trump ended up spending nearly an hour in the Rose Garden on Monday, but he gave the lectern over to Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Deborah L. Birx, his pandemic coordinator, and the executives enough that his own time was limited, to the relief of some of his aides and allies.

“There seems to be a direct correlation between how completely bonkers the daily Trump briefing had become and the piling up of devastating facts on both the death toll and the job losses,” said Jennifer Psaki, who was White House communications director under President Barack Obama. “So it is hard to see how continuing this briefing was to his own advantage.”

While not at his feistiest, Mr. Trump was still full of his usual bombast, claiming as he often does that until the virus hit he had built “the greatest economy in the history of the world” and “you would have been at war with North Korea if I wasn’t president,” two assertions belied by history and statistics.

He rejected a fear voiced by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his putative Democratic challenger, that the president might seek to delay the November election, citing the pandemic. “I never even thought of changing the date of the election,” Mr. Trump said.

But he said he would be open to suing states that have imposed restrictions to combat the virus, as Attorney General William P. Barr has suggested. “It would depend on the state; it would depend on the circumstance of the state,” Mr. Trump said. “The attorney general doesn’t want to have rights taken away. There are some people, they’re not allowed to open up a store. They’re going to lose their livelihood.”

What he did not explain was how that differed from his own administration’s guidelines urging that most stores be kept closed or from his criticism of Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia for opening some businesses in his state too quickly.

At the same time, Mr. Trump complained about the prosecution of Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to authorities, and quickly equated it to his own time under investigation. “What happened to your president of the United States should never happen again,” he said.

After 55 minutes it was over. And not for the last time.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.

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