President Donald Trump rejected assertions that he had downplayed the spread of the novel coronavirus for weeks, saying Tuesday that he maintained a rosy public outlook while working behind the scenes because he felt the president needed to be a “cheerleader” for the country.
“The cases really didn’t build up for a while, but you have to understand, I’m a cheerleader for this country,” Trump said during a daily coronavirus briefing at the White House. “I don’t want to create havoc and shock and everything else. But ultimately, when I was saying that, I’m also closing it down. I obviously was concerned about it.”
Trump’s comments came after CBS reporter Ben Tracy asked about memos written by top White House adviser Peter Navarro in January and February that included bleak warnings related to the coronavirus, saying it could cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars and potentially infect or kill millions of Americans.
The memos circulated among the top echelons of the Trump administration and came at the same time the president was downplaying the threat of the virus, saying the country had it “totally under control” and that the outbreak would have “a very good ending.”
“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” Navarro wrote on Jan. 29, as first reported by The New York Times. “This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”
Trump did restrict travel from China on Jan. 31 and blocked most travel from Europe on March 11. But he did not declare a national emergency until March 13 and has not issued any national stay-at-home orders despite being urged to do so by leading public health officials. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said last week he didn’t understand why the U.S. wasn’t under such a mandate already.
More than 396,000 people have now been infected in the country and at least 12,700 have died.
Tracy asked the president about his dismissive comments as cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, were first reported in the U.S. But Trump refused to give up ground, insisting his initial statements were still accurate.
“You were saying things like: ‘I think it’s a problem that’s going to go away,’” Tracy said.
“Which I’m right about,” Trump interjected. “It will go away.”
The president later added: “I’m not going to go out and start screaming, ‘This could happen, this could happen.’ So again, as president, I think a president has to be a cheerleader for their country, but at the same time I’m cheerleading I’m also closing down a very highly infected place, specifically the location, as you know, in China, that had the problems.”
“Those were big moves,” he said.
The president also faulted the World Health Organization for its response to the coronavirus, which it declared a pandemic in early March after COVID-19 killed more than 4,000 people worldwide. Trump said the U.S. would “put a hold” on funding to the group because he felt it hadn’t done enough early on.
“They called it wrong,” he claimed on Tuesday. “They call it wrong. They really, they missed the call.”