WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will watch Easter come and go this weekend without the nation “raring to go” as a new debate buds over whether May 1 is now the target date of revival.
Instead of joining packed pews at his usual 11 a.m. ET service at the stone Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said this week he'll livestream Easter on a laptop from a megachurch in Dallas. And instead of brunch and an egg hunt on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago, Trump is spending the weekend in Washington anxiously looking ahead to the decision he says is the biggest of his presidency.
In late night meetings inside the White House Roosevelt Room, Trump's advisers this week hashed out what might be necessary to declare the country reopen for business in three weeks' time, according to administration officials. Even as coronavirus cases are expected to peak soon in the United States, Trump has begun looking forward to the day he can tell the American people the worst is over.
If the curve is flattening, sources say Trump has asked in meetings, shouldn't some people be allowed back to work? And if the total number of dead is now projected lower, could a reopening happen sooner?
"We're looking at a date," Trump said Friday. "We hope we're going to be able to fulfill a certain date, but we're not doing anything until we know that this country is going to be healthy."
In public, Trump has been coy about offering a specific date for reopening the country after he was forced to back off his initial Easter timetable. But internally officials are pushing to do so by next month and there are specific discussions underway about May 1, a person familiar with the talks said.
It's a date few health experts, including those advising him at the White House, feel comfortable endorsing outright. Privately they have cautioned that it could take longer to get testing up to speed throughout the country, including not only for the tests that determine if someone has coronavirus but those that determine if someone has had it without knowing. Those health officials are being assured by other aides that testing will be on par within weeks, but doubts remain, people familiar with the talks said.
Aides already predict an eventual clash between those who want the economy reopened and those who caution a more gradual approach.
Trump insisted Friday he would give both sides a hearing, even as he claimed that "staying at home leads to death also."
"I will certainly listen. Two sides, remember. I understand the other side of the argument very well," he said when asked whether he would heed the advice of his health team if they tell him May 1 is unrealistic to reopen the country.
Pressed later what metrics he would use, he simply pointed to his head.
"That's my metrics," he said. "I'm going to have to make a decision and I only hope to God that it's the right decision. But I would say without question it's the biggest decision I've ever had to make."
Everyone bending his ear
As conversations intensify in the White House about how and when to give guidance to reopen the country, the President is talking more and more to friends from Wall Street, hedge fund managers and others in the financial world pressuring him to put a specific date on the calendar for when businesses can reopen -- and to do it soon, according to a person familiar with the President's conversations.
Meanwhile, the President's allies in conservative media have begun waging a campaign to discredit some on his team as narrowly focused on charts and models rather than the economic pain inflicted on millions of Americans.
Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host whom Trump awarded a surprise Medal of Freedom during this year's State of the Union address, called Dr. Anthony Fauci -- the nation's top infectious disease expert -- a "Clinton sympathizer" on his program this week. Tucker Carlson, whose intervention in early March helped Trump take the outbreak more seriously, said on his Fox program Fauci had been "wrong repeatedly."
When Trump initially decided Easter was the date he hoped to have the country open again, it caught some aides off guard and was not based on any data-focused discussions.
Officials, realizing it was unrealistic, slowly tried to get the President to back off that timeline by showing him models that projected thousands of dead and polling that showed Americans favored keeping the restrictions back in place.
"That was just an aspiration. That would have been incredible," Trump said this week. "But I don't think we're going to be very far behind."
Now, there is no similarly concerted effort underway to convince Trump to ease up on the May timeline for reopening the country, people familiar with the matter said.
Even some of Trump's Cabinet officials have started signaling their quiet endorsement of lifting certain restrictions. Attorney General William Barr called guidelines on social distancing "draconian" in an interview this week. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he sees businesses reopening as soon as next month.
The debate isn't necessarily falling along predictable lines. Some of Trump's longtime political advisers -- both inside and outside the White House -- are concerned about opening the country too soon, fearing a resurgence of infections and more calamity, people familiar with the matter said.
Frustration is brewing among some of the President's aides that wealthy outside voices are pushing their own agendas -- with their own portfolios and companies in mind -- rather than what may be best for the country, not to mention the President's reelection prospects and legacy.
Eager for victory
Still, with unemployment spiking and his approval slipping, Trump is eager to declare victory against what he calls the "invisible enemy." He's previewed a "big celebration" when the coronavirus outbreak has ended and hopes the country's reemergence from virtual lockdown will help him politically.
Even with an administration response beset by poor preparation, confusing messaging and persistent shortages in supplies, Trump believes he's behaving like a "wartime president" and will be rewarded with a boost in support like past crisis-time leaders. Marathon briefings from the White House, not universally supported among Trump's allies, have nonetheless proceeded apace even after the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board called them "boring" and "off-key."
He's been encouraged by indications showing the total number of deaths in the United States may fall well below the projections offered by his team earlier this month, when models produced by the White House put the potential deaths between 100,000 and 240,000.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said on Friday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit she is seeing a leveling of the curve in the United States.
"You can see for the first time that in the United States, we are starting to level on the logarithmic phase like Italy did about a week ago. And so this gives us great heart, that not only in specific places, but we are starting to see that change," Birx said.
Still, she cautioned, "we have not reached the peak."
Inside the White House, there is little expectation the federal guidelines on social distancing will be reissued as they currently stand when they expire on April 30, though officials close to the situation cautioned that could change.
Instead, conversations about pinpointing certain geographic regions based on their infection rate are well underway. The task force has weighed benchmarks that might indicate a state is ready to loosen restrictions on businesses and gatherings, including a sustained 14-day period reduction in the number of confirmed cases, normal operations returned to hospitals and widely available testing.
Though Trump claimed Friday to wield "absolute authority" in reopening the country, the extent of his powers remain limited. The federal government's guidelines on closing businesses and restricting gatherings were merely recommendations, and decisions on how and when to actually reopen the country will lie mostly with governors who enacted mandatory stay-at-home orders.
Americans themselves will also need to feel comfortable returning to crowded restaurants and workplaces before the economy can return to normal. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed 60% of Americans say they would feel uncomfortable returning to their regular routines if social distancing guidelines were lifted after April 30, the current expiration date for Trump's recommendations.
Trump and his senior officials have acknowledged a phased approach to reopening may be necessary, though the President himself has advocated publicly for a "big bang" that would see the entire nation open at one.
"The next month or two, we should be able to restart, at least on a rolling basis," National Economic Council chairman Larry Kudlow said in an interview on the Fox Business Network.
Other officials were less enthusiastic.
"Some places will be able to think about opening on May 1," Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Friday on Fox News. "Most of the country will not, to be honest with you, but some will."
Key to any reopening, according to health experts and senior administration officials, is the ability to offer widespread testing and institute surveillance systems that would identify new outbreaks. The White House has worked to develop a more robust testing strategy, including shipping new rapid tests developed by Abbott Laboratories to states. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, pleaded with state health officials during a briefing on Tuesday to get their Abbott testing devices online.
The White House has also worked to scale up serology testing, used to detect antibodies that would identify people who are likely immune to coronavirus and who could return to work or other aspects of normal life.
Fauci said Friday the idea of Americans carrying certificates of immunity to prove they have tested positive for the antibodies to the coronavirus might "have some merit under certain circumstances."
But the test isn't ready yet. And the country remains at home, even on a week when many Americans would otherwise be streaming into churches for Easter or gathering with families for Passover.
Trump, who once hoped a "great American resurrection" would be underway by now, said he'd set up his laptop from the White House to watch Easter services from Dallas' First Baptist Church, where his friend and sometime-adviser Robert Jeffress is the senior pastor. Jeffress, who has a long history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays, vigorously campaigned for Trump during the final months of the 2016 presidential election.
"I'm going to be with him watching on a laptop," Trump said Friday. "Doesn't sound good, but it's one of those things. It could not beat church."
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