Donald Trump again struggled to reassure a fearful nation on Thursday as it emerged the US now has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world.
News that America had surpassed virus hotspots China and Italy with 82,404 cases of infection, according to a tracker run by Johns Hopkins University, broke as the president was holding a press conference at the White House.
His instinctive response was to question other countries’ statistics. “It’s a tribute to the amount of testing that we’re doing,” Trump told reporters. “We’re doing tremendous testing, and I’m sure you’re not able to tell what China is testing or not testing. I think that’s a little hard.”
Trump later spoke to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, by telephone and had what he described on Twitter as a “very good conversation”. The two leaders discussed the coronavirus in “great detail”, adding that: “China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”
Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2020
While the US has increased its testing capacity in recents days the process has been flawed and incoherent, and the country still lags behind leaders such as South Korea in terms of the number of tests administered per-capita.
On a grim day, the death toll in America surpassed 1,000 and it was revealed that last week 3.3 million people filed for unemployment – the biggest single-week jump in history. The president has been widely condemned for failing to act fast enough, misjudging the public mood and seeking to blame others rather than taking personal responsibility.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” Trump said of the jobless figure. “Certainly not in this country. Nobody’s fault. We got very lucky when we made a decision not to allow people in from China on a very early date. I say that because some people don’t want to accept it, but this was a great decision made by our country, or the numbers that you’re talking about – we’re a big country – they’d be far greater, far bigger.”
He added: “I heard it could be six million, could be seven million. It’s 3.3 or 3.2, but it’s a lot of jobs, but I think we’ll come back very strong. The sooner we get back to work – you know, every day we stay out it gets harder to bring it back very quickly, and our people don’t want to stay out ... I think you’ll see a very fast turnaround once we have a victory over the hidden enemy.”
Trump told the briefing that dates for reopening sections of the country were under discussion but he notably did not refer to Easter – 12 April – as he has been pushing in recent days.
Critics have long accused him of lacking compassion, pointing to examples such as when, in 2017, he lobbed paper towels at hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico. On Thursday he was asked about the thousands of restaurants going out of business, causing personal devastation to owners and staff.
“I understand the restaurant business,” he claimed, describing it as “very delicate”. He went on: “You can serve 30 great meals to a person and a family ... one bad meal, 31, and they never come back again. It’s a very tough business.”
He added: “It may not be the same restaurant, it may not be the same ownership, but they’ll all be back.”
Even as New York hospitals become overwhelmed, with doctors complaining of nightmarish conditions, and cases spike in cities such as New Orleans, Trump continued to talk down the threat from the virus. “Many people have it. I just spoke to two people that had it. They never went to a doctor, they didn’t report it ... The people that actually die, that percentage is much lower than I actually thought.”
He added, “The mortality rate, in my opinion, is way down,” even though experts have warned that this is likely to worsen in the coming weeks.
In a tone that again seemed at odds with the gravity of the situation, Trump asked a reporter from Bloomberg News, “How’s Michael doing, good?” – a reference to the failed presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg – and dismissed a state governor who took part in a conference call as a “wise guy”.
He also said he will speak by phone with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping later on Thursday, claiming they have a “very good relationship”. The president has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus”, angering some in that country.
“No, it came from China,” he said, but he added, “if they feel so strongly about it, we’ll see.”
Vice-president Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, also sought to calm fears about a shortage of ventilators, despite media reports to the contrary.
Birx said of New York: “To wake up this morning and look at people talking about creating DNR situations, Do-Not-Resuscitate situations for patients – there is no situation in the United States right now that warrants that kind of discussion.”
There was some silver lining for Trump on Thursday as stocks rallied on Wall Street for that day after a historic $2tn economic rescue package won passage in the Senate. The plan, which is expected to be voted on in the House of Representatives on Friday, would distribute $1,200 per adult and $500 per child.
Joe Biden, the front runner in the Democratic presidential race, said: “The president is not responsible for the coronavirus, but he bears full responsibility for the slow and uncoordinated response that has exacerbated both the public health and economic impact on our country. The harsh reality is that at least 3 million people now don’t have jobs because our president didn’t do his job when it mattered.”