“’How bad is this?’ It’s bad.” Trump shows more somber tone as pandemic worsens, crisis hits economy

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was minutes into his remarks Monday when he turned away from his talking points to put the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic in personal terms.  

“I’ve spoken, actually, with my son,” the president said, referencing 13-year-old Barron Trump. “He says, ‘How bad is this?’ It’s bad. It’s bad. But we’re going to be hopefully a best case, not a worst case.”

Trump’s invocation of his son underscored the fear millions of Americans have felt as they confront COVID-19, but it was also the latest demonstration of a shift in tone for a president who once described concerns over the public health crisis as a “hoax” and who has often mocked the idea of sounding “presidential.”

For weeks, Trump compared the coronavirus to the less deadly flu and suggested it might “miraculously” disappear this spring. But in recent days, he has used near-daily appearances to declare a national emergency, warn that Americans could be cooped up in their homes for months and acknowledge that the U.S. economy could be headed to a recession as a result of widespread disruptions.

‘Invisible enemy’

That marked a strong contrast to a rushed Oval Office address only a week ago when the president offered scant details about how the nation would respond.  

While he has publicly conceded hard realities about the virus, Trump has also embraced a more urgent tone and somber mien that is less overtly political than the rough-and-tumble approach cheered by his supporters. He has read more from prepared remarks, sometimes flipping the pages of his statement. He has often deferred to the public health officials who he brings on stage with him every day to discuss the virus. 

On Tuesday, Trump urged Congress to work with him on a “big, bold” stimulus package to counter the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic and backed the idea of sending cash to Americans to help them pay their bills.

“We don’t want airlines going out of business or people losing their jobs and not having money to live,” he told a news conference.

Trump also urged Americans to remain vigilant and limit gatherings to 10 people for at least two more weeks.

“We have to fight that invisible enemy, I guess unknown, but we are getting to know it quickly,” he said. “One day we will be standing up here and be saying, ‘Well, we won.’”

Some Democrats and critics of the president have given him credit for the shift, while also arguing it took too long for Trump to get on board with public health officials.

Can Washington come together?   

Asked if a bitterly divided Washington can unite to craft legislation that meets the moment, Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said Trump’s shift in tone could make a difference.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than people think now that the president has finally started looking at this as…serious as it is,” Jones told reporters in a conference call. “You’re going to see people coming together.”

The coronavirus represents a dire threat to the U.S. economy, which in turn could have profound effect on Trump’s reelection chances this year. Trump has felt an obligation to encourage Americans to remain optimistic, said White House aides speaking on the condition of anonymity, but that effort has been complicated by the daily gyrations on Wall Street including Monday’s major selloff.

Markets recovered slightly on Tuesday, posting gains. 

Still, Trump critics questioned how long the more measured approach would last. 

“We heard new words from the White House yesterday – better ones – but at this point, words alone aren’t enough. We should judge actions,”  said Ron Klain, who served as President Barack Obama’s point on the 2014 Ebola outbreak. 

The president has not entirely abandoned broadsides on political opponents, including some he will need to work with to address the coronavirus. He slammed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a tweet on Monday, arguing he needed to “do more” to confront a spike in cases outside of New York City. On Tuesday he argued that “failing” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “must work harder and be much more proactive.”

Trump’s criticism of Whitmer came after the Democratic governor said the federal government was unprepared for the virus.  

But Trump also showed capacity to temper the animosity and lower swords with opponents. In a turnaround Tuesday, Trump said he had spoken to Cuomo hours earlier and that they had a “great” conversation at that both were “doing a really good job.” Trump added that he felt Albany and Washington were on the “same track.”

Trump dismissed the idea that his rhetoric had changed and denied reports that a sobering European study released this week altered his sense of the seriousness of virus.  

“I have seen that, where people actually liked it,” Trump said of reports about his more somber tone. “There was no difference yesterday from days before. I feel the tone is similar, but some people said it wasn’t.”

Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry

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