The White House appeared to be in fresh disarray on Wednesday as Donald Trump insisted that his coronavirus taskforce would remain in place – less than 24 hours after suggesting it would be disbanded.
The US president reversed course following a backlash against moves to wind down the taskforce even as the country reports about 30,000 new coronavirus cases a day and the death toll moves past 70,000, the highest in the world.
But Trump did confirm a switch in focus to reviving America’s devastated economy, fuelling anxiety that he has made a cold political calculation to put his re-election chances ahead of saving lives.
The 22-member White House coronavirus taskforce was created in late January, and Mike Pence was named as chairman. It met frequently to address the pandemic and then explained its work in nightly press briefings, but these came to be dominated by Trump often attacking the media, veering off topic or uttering disinformation, and sometimes lasted more than two hours.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, the president said that because of its success, “the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.”
The pledge sowed confusion after both Trump and Pence indicated on Tuesday that the taskforce, which has begun to meet less frequently and had not held a press briefing in more than a week, was to be dismantled.
Trump had told reporters: “We’re now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening. And we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”
He later added, according to a pooled report: “I thought we could wind it down sooner. But I had no idea how popular the taskforce is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding down. It is appreciated by the public.”
And Pence had said: “I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the taskforce to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level.”
The surprise remarks drew comparisons with the premature “Mission Accomplished” banner that hung on an aircraft carrier where George W Bush addressed troops during the early stages of the Iraq war. It raised fears that Trump, with an eye on November’s election, had all but abandoned health needs in favour of economic imperatives.
Touring a face mask factory in Arizona, where he defied guidelines by not wearing a mask himself and where the James Bond theme song Live and Let Die played over loudspeakers, the president admitted: “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.”
A strong economy has long been Trump’s central argument for re-election, but stay-at-home orders during the pandemic have wreaked havoc and wiped out at least 30m jobs. Trump regards recovery as politically vital as a series of opinion polls show him trailing election opponent Joe Biden.
Undeterred by a coronavirus death toll already bigger than the US’s in the Vietnam war, Trump has urged supporters to “liberate” states from pandemic restrictions and cheered on state governors who order reopenings in defiance of his own phased federal guidelines. Commentators suspect his strategy will be to claim credit for economic gains while shifting blame to governors for resurgences of the virus.
Infection rates continue to increase outside New York, the hardest-hit state. On Monday, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation almost doubled its previous US mortality model to more than 134,000. And a leaked internal White House report suggests that the daily US death toll will climb to 3,000 a day by June.
The administration has also restricted coronavirus taskforce members from testifying before Congress unless they have “express approval”. The president said he stopped the infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci appearing before a House of Representatives committee because it is a “set-up” with a “bunch of Trump-haters”.
But Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies programme at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said any attempt to sideline Fauci and response coordinator Deborah Birx was doomed. “He might try to marginalise them but the press isn’t going to try to marginalise them.
“They are the people with the data and with the expertise and nobody with data and expertise is going to be marginalised. It’s going to be the politicians who don’t listen to the scientists who are going to get marginalised.”
The White House suffered a further blow to its credibility this week when the New York Times reported that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, turned to young and unqualified volunteers from consulting and private equity firms to help secure masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment for hospitals.