Donald Trump turns combative during stormy coronavirus press conference

Bhavan Jaipragas

US President Donald Trump said on Friday that private companies including carmakers had begun producing essential medical supplies days after he invoked rarely used emergency powers, but he declined to offer details on whether the firms were obeying orders or acting voluntarily.

Trump’s remarks about the 70-year-old Defence Production Act came amid a stormy press conference in which he sparred, at times angrily, with reporters over whether he was giving Americans a false sense of hope by seeking to put a positive spin on efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic – including the use of an antimalarial drug that has yet to go through clinical trials.

Asked whether he had tapped into the emergency powers he invoked on Wednesday, Trump said: “We have millions of masks which are coming and which will be distributed to the [states that] are having a hard time getting them… So we are using the act, the act is very good for things like this.”

Asked multiple times for details on which companies were involved and whether they were responding to a directive, he offered contradictory responses. At one point he said he had not yet starting using the powers.

“So far we haven't had to. It’s an amazing thing that has happened, we're getting calls from automobile companies, we're getting calls from other companies saying they have plant capacity they want to make ventilators and they want to make other things,” he said.

Later, pressed again on the issue, he said that General Motors was one of the companies he had asked to help with the production of medical supplies. He also said he needed the permission of other companies involved before he could name them in public.

State governors have been sounding the alarm over looming supply shortages for personal protective equipment and ventilators as infections surge nationwide.

All New York state non-essential workers now must stay home

On the supply of ventilators – described by the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as the equivalent of “what missiles were to World War II” – Vice-President Mike Pence said the federal government had 20,000 units in reserve.

Pence said plans were underway to retrofit existing ventilators to convert them into the models that are used to treat coronavirus patients in intensive care.

A Wall Street Journal report on Thursday cited an expert as saying the US needed up to 810,000 ventilators if the virus continues to spread at the current trajectory. The report said there were some 200,000 devices currently available in the country.

Friday’s Covid-19 task force press conference was the most fraught since Trump began fronting them over the weekend. At one point, he took aim at NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander, who questioned whether the president was “putting a positive spin on things” and asked him for his message to Americans who are scared.

“I’d say you are a terrible reporter, that’s what I’d say,” Trump shot back.

“It's a very nasty question, and I think it's a very bad signal that you're putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they're looking for hope,” he said. “You’re doing sensationalism, the same with NBC.”

Alexander had earlier questioned Trump’s bullishness on Thursday that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine – and its derivative hydroxychloroquine – would have a therapeutic effect on Covid-19 patients.

Anthony Fauci (right), the United States’ leading infectious disease specialist, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during Friday’s press briefing. Photo: Reuters

Experts including the country’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr Anthony Fauci, said that while the drug was being administered by some physicians in the US and elsewhere on an “off-label” basis on compassionate grounds, there was no evidence from clinical trials that it worked.

Off-label usage refers to the practice of physicians prescribing approved drugs for unapproved purposes or to unapproved groups, based on their judgment that it may have a therapeutic effect. The practice is legal.

Trump official says testing in high gear, governors cite continued hiccups

Trump sparked confusion on Thursday after he said the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved its use as a therapeutic for Covid-19. The FDA later walked that back, saying it was still studying the matter.

The drugs “may work and it may not work. And I agree with [Fauci] when he said it may work or it may not work. I feel good about it, still it is just a feeling, you know, [I’m a] smart guy. I feel good about it,” Trump said on Friday.

Nigeria on Friday reported a rise in chloroquine poisonings following Trump’s remarks, raising concerns in the country about people self-medicating with the drug.

After Trump’s comments to Alexander, other journalists questioned whether it was wise for Trump to chafe at journalists and news networks so publicly in the middle of a crisis. Trump defended his remarks.

“You know, I dealt with Peter for a long time. And I think Peter is not a good journalist when it comes to fairness,” he said. “This is the time to come together, but coming together is much harder when we have dishonest journalists.”

Earlier on Friday, Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses in New York to close, tightening an earlier directive that they reduce their workforce by 75 per cent.

Illinois Governor J.B Pritzker also issued a statewide stay-at-home order. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom of California ordered all residents to “stay home” in order to “bend the curve” in his state, the most populous in the US.

With these orders, more than one in five Americans are now under a virtual lockdown. The number of confirmed cases on Friday stood at more than 15,200, with over 4,000 infections in New York City. The national death toll stood at 201.

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