Trump defends early coronavirus actions in contentious briefing, as Fauci regrets ‘poor choice of words’

President Trump on Monday mounted a heated defense of his response to coronavirus during a combative briefing, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, attempted to clarify his comment a day earlier that lives could have been saved had U.S. officials acted earlier.

Trump particularly defended his move to shut down flights from China in late January, saying it “saved tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives.” He also slammed both Democrats and the media for criticizing the move to stop flights from China into the United States.

“I could have kept it open and I could have done what some countries are doing. They’re getting beat up pretty badly,” Trump said. “If I would have done that, we would have had hundreds of thousands of people right now who would be dead. We’ve done this right.”

Fauci said during the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing that his comments Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” were incomplete and that the president was not to blame for the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on the country.

Fauci on Sunday said: “I mean, obviously, you could the White House logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But, what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated.”

Summoned to the podium by Trump, Fauci tried to dispel the interpretation that his comments meant “that maybe someone was at fault here,” before going on to defend Trump and say that the president has heeded the advice of public health officials every time they’ve offered suggestions.

The comments created a firestorm of controversy that the president was planning on firing Fauci, which reached a fever pitch once Trump retweeted a message that included the hashtag “#FireFauci.”

The administration tried on Monday to clear up the matter by saying that the reaction to the post missed the point and that Trump was just trying to respond to a media “falsehood” about the coronavirus response.

“This media chatter is ridiculous – President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci.  The President’s tweet clearly exposed media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision in an attempt to rewrite history,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

During Monday’s press briefing, Fauci denied that the president of anybody in the administration had pressured him into clarifying his comments.

“Everything I do is voluntary,” Fauci said. “Please don’t even imply that.”

The public health official’s clarification preceded Trump’s own defense of his response to the coronavirus pandemic, which included campaign-style video featuring a timeline of Trump’s actions regarding the virus as well as sound clips as to what he called “fake” media coverage. Trump was quickly pressed on a gap in the video’s timeline that showed little response to the virus in February, but the president deflected the comment and boasted of the success of his move to block flights from China while criticizing presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s past comments on the travel ban.

Trump has pointed some of the blame at state and local officials, saying they failed to prepare for such a damaging pandemic. Some governors including Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, said the White House has been more to blame.

For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, also a Democrat, told CNN: “The ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’ deserves an important focus. Right now, again, the house is on fire. We’ve got to put the fire on the house out and then we’ve got to begin to get back on our feet and then at that point we have to look back and say what could we have done differently.”

Trump also made the controversial comment that “when somebody is the president of the United States the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be.” The comment drew a deluge of questions from reporters in the room asking Trump to clarify, but neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence would go far beyond what the president said.

Trump added: “The authority of president of the United States, when it comes to the subject we’re talking about, is total.”

Besides the president’s back-and-forth with the media, the briefing included an announcement from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that Americans will receive their coronavirus aid payments no later than April 15.

The news, which was first reported by Fox News last week, means that by the middle of this week tens of millions of eligible Americans will have money from the federal government directly deposited into their bank accounts.

Trump has said he will make a decision in conjunction with governors and other officials on reopening the economy and is forming a new coronavirus taskforce focused on that goal.

Earlier Monday, the task force was expected to include Trump family members Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. But Trump said during the press conference they will not serve on the new task force, after their inclusion provoked criticism in various media outlets.

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