WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump turned Monday’s daily coronavirus task force briefing into an aggressive defense of his own halting response to the pandemic and used a campaign-style video to denounce criticism that he moved too slowly to limit the deadly spread of the virus.
For nearly an hour, Trump vented his frustration after weekend news reports that his own public health officials were prepared by late February to recommend aggressive social distancing measures, but that the president did not announce them until several weeks later — a crucial delay that allowed the virus to spread.
Trump broadly mischaracterized an article on his response to the coronavirus, published Sunday in The New York Times, repeatedly insisting that the United States had very few cases of the virus in early January — six weeks earlier — and angrily mocking a suggestion that was never made: that he should have ordered all schools and businesses shut that month.
“I am supposed to close down the greatest economy in the history of the world and we don’t have one case confirmed in the United States?” he said, his voice laced with sarcasm.
Trump began the briefing by inviting Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and a member of the coronavirus task force, to the lectern so that he could “clarify” comments he made Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” On the news program, he said that more lives could have been saved from the coronavirus if the country had been shut down earlier.
With the president towering over him, Fauci said his answer to a hypothetical question got him “into some difficulty” and insisted that Trump had approved aggressive social distancing measures as soon as he and Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, urged him to do so.
“The first and only time that Dr. Birx and I went in and formally made a recommendation to the president” to put in place strong mitigation measures, Fauci said, “the president listened to the recommendation and went to the mitigation.”
Trump — who on Sunday reposted a message on Twitter saying, “Time to #FireFauci” — insisted he had no plans to remove Fauci from his team and was merely elevating someone else’s opinion that he did not share.
“I retweeted somebody. I don’t know, they said, ‘Fire.’ Doesn’t matter,” Trump told reporters.
“I like him, I think he is terrific,” the president said. “Not everybody is happy with Anthony, not everybody is happy with everybody.”
Begun as a regular update on the virus by Vice President Mike Pence and the nation’s top public health officials, the daily evening briefing has largely been turned into a lengthy infomercial starring Trump, who brags about his administration’s efforts, mocks his critics and berates reporters.
But even by those standards, Monday’s briefing stood out. Instead of beginning with his daily recitation of facts about the virus response, the president first introduced Fauci and then delivered a prepared defense of his actions, and an attack on the news reports about them.
Lashing out at what he called “a fake newspaper” that writes “fake stories,” Trump lowered the lights in the White House briefing room to play a video showing a number of Fox News hosts playing down the threat from the virus and governors lauding his actions to help them deal with the crush of hospitalizations.
The video — which the president said was produced by a social media team in “a period of less than two hours” — included video clips of Trump taking action to confront the virus, and did not include any of the many instances when the president said the virus was “under control” and would “miraculously disappear” with little effort.
Set to music, the video largely skipped over February and early March, when public health experts say the administration failed to provide enough testing for the virus and did not act quickly enough to promote social distancing and prevent its spread.
At one point in the video, Maggie Haberman, a New York Times White House correspondent, is heard commenting on the president’s decision on Jan. 31 to halt some flights from China in an interview with The Times’ podcast “The Daily.”
“At the end of the day, it was probably effective, because it did actually take a pretty aggressive measure against the spread of the virus,” Haberman said in the interview. “The problem is, it was one of the last things that he did for several weeks.”
In the video, Haberman’s last sentence was edited out, as was her description of the decision as Trump’s “mission accomplished” moment.
Haberman was one of six writers of the Times article that Trump said was “fake.”
“We are confident in the accuracy of our reporting, which was based on verified documents and numerous on the record interviews,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times. “The facts in our story are not in dispute.”
Before the briefing ended, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement saying that the president “commandeered the briefing to run campaign propaganda to sooth his small ego and pathetically try to cover up for his own failed response.”
Trump’s presentation was the continuation of a weekend-long effort to rebut criticism of his slow initial response to the pandemic. The president tweeted repeatedly on Saturday after The Times article was first published online, and he continued on Sunday, after Fauci’s interview on “State of the Union,” which angered many of Trump’s allies and supporters.
Asked by Jake Tapper, the show’s host, whether “lives could have been saved” if social distancing had been started in late February rather than in mid-March, Fauci said they could have.
“I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” Fauci said.
The president’s failure to announce aggressive mitigation efforts until mid-March even though top health officials, including Fauci, had concluded several weeks earlier that it would soon be time to embrace such measures is considered a critical mistake in the effort to contain the virus.
But at Monday’s briefing, Fauci said his response was taken out of context as confirmation of The Times investigation that reported that the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic but that lack of planning led to a halting response.
“As happens all the time, there were interpretations of that response to a hypothetical question,” Fauci said. “I thought it would be nice for me to clarify because I did not have a chance to clarify.”
Fauci bristled when a reporter asked if he was making the clarifying statement voluntarily, implying that he was put up to it under pressure from Trump.
“Everything I do is voluntary, please,” he said. “Don’t even imply that.”