Donald Trump to resume coronavirus briefings as approval ratings plummet

With Donald Trump’s approval rating plummeting as coronavirus cases in the US continue to rise, the president plans to resume daily briefings on the pandemic at the White House on Tuesday.

Keenly aware of the need to change perceptions of how he is handling the virus if he hopes to win re-election, Trump also came out for the first time on Monday as a supporter of facial masks.

Trump tweeted a picture of himself wearing a mask with the line: “Many people say that it is patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed on Tuesday the president had “been consistent” about the need to wear masks but in truth it represented a whiplash reversal by Trump, who was facing a Republican mutiny. Governors in 28 states have now made mask-wearing in public mandatory as virus cases have exploded across the south and west, mostly in states governed by Republicans.

The US recorded about 60,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, up more than 30% in the last two weeks for a total of more than 3.8m. Deaths over the same period are up 64% and total confirmed deaths have passed 140,000.

For months, Trump has punished and exiled public health experts such as Dr Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who have advanced basic recommendations such as mask-wearing and hand-washing.

Trump’s mockery of his election rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask and his own refusal to wear one in the 19 weeks since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic helped to create a partisan divide on mask-wearing and provoke violent clashes in shops and streets.

But aides have reportedly shown polling to Trump demonstrating that he is out of step with the public. Eight out of 10 Americans, and 66% of Republicans, say they wear a mask all or most of the time when they leave home, an ABC News-Washington Post poll last week found.

The poll also found that only 38% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, down 13 points from March, and 60% disapprove, up 15.

It is unknown whether Trump’s plan to reverse those numbers includes any new action to fight the coronavirus. As the reality of the pandemic has settled in, criticism of the federal government’s failure to establish routine testing, contact tracing and supported isolation has intensified.

As negotiations continue over a new stimulus and relief package for the battered US economy, the White House is widely reported to want to cut new funding for testing and tracing and other efforts against the pandemic. While Senate Republicans aim to reduce special unemployment payments, Trump is pushing for a payroll tax cut, a move which would hit social security and Medicare in the middle of a public health crisis.

Dr Anthony Fauci said he was pleased Donald Trump was now wearing a mask but did not know if he would be called to take part in the resumed White House briefings.
Dr Anthony Fauci said he was pleased Trump was now wearing a mask but did not know if he would attend the new briefings. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

But with the resumption of daily briefings by the coronavirus taskforce, which ran from February to mid-April and featured an astounding mix of harmful lies by Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence, the president hopes to recover some credibility.

“Well, we had very successful briefings,” Trump said on Monday. “I was doing them and we had a lot of people watching. Record numbers watching.”

The briefings were abruptly discontinued in mid-April after a Trump riff in which he asked advisers to look into whether light could be “brought inside the body”, and whether with disinfectant, “We can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”

The format of the new briefings, and the extent to which they will include experts such as Fauci, is unclear. The White House recently launched outright attacks on Fauci by publishing an op-ed signed by one of the president’s top aides titled “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on” and by releasing a file of opposition research to the Washington Post.

Speaking to NPR on Tuesday, Fauci said he was “very pleased to see the president wearing a mask and tweeting about wearing mask”. He also said he could not guarantee he would be part of the new briefings, indicating that was up to the White House. He would not mind if he was not, he said, “as long as we get the message across”.

Trump might be mistaken in his calculation that briefings can restore approval in his handing of the pandemic. While that approval was higher in late March, when Trump declared that the virus would be defeated “by Easter”, it was already in freefall when the briefings were ended, a Post analysis found.

Trump’s overall approval sits at about 40%, near the low end of the narrow band in which it has fluctuated since he was elected. Historically, no incumbent has won re-election without an approval rating at or near 50% – although no one discounts the possibility of a second Trump victory via the electoral college.

The masks tweet notwithstanding, Trump’s recent public statements about the pandemic have not built confidence in his leadership. Trump has threatened to cut funding for schools that do not fully reopen in the fall, a step most Americans think would be unsafe.

And the president’s sky-is-green denial of the basic facts and dangers of the virus continues even as an increasing number of Americans experience Covid-19 first-hand. In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Trump repeated his assertion that the virus would simply “disappear”.

“I’ll be right eventually,” Trump told host Chris Wallace. “It is going to disappear. I’ll say it again, it’s going to disappear and I’ll be right.”