Frustration inside White House over mixed coronavirus messaging

PALM BEACH, Fla. — White House officials are growing increasingly frustrated in what they see as President Donald Trump's consistent bids to downplay the severity of the quickly-spreading coronavirus outbreak, a tendency that has led to a clash in messaging with public health officials.

Those mixed signals were on display Sunday as the top infectious disease doctor at the National Institutes of Health, Tony Fauci, warned the elderly and medically vulnerable to avoid large crowds and not to take long trips or cruises, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the public to be prepared for more cases and fatalities.

But the message Sunday morning from Trump on Twitter was praise for his administration’s response, which he called a "perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan," and blame for the media, which he said was “doing everything possible to make us look bad.”

The president also told reporters Saturday night that he wouldn’t be postponing his political rallies, which can attract upwards of 15,000 attendees, and wasn't concerned about the virus getting closer to the White House.

Multiple sources familiar with the discussions acknowledged Trump is simply not on the same wavelength as the rest of his team, but said there isn’t much they can do to change his public tone. Trump has been advised by some close to him to let public health officials, rather than the politicians, take a more forward-facing role, according to one person familiar with the conversation. But one person close to the White House said Trump thinks it helps him politically to keep doing what he has been doing.

That has left aides feeling discouraged over their efforts to get out a more comprehensive message about what needs to be done and prepare the public for likely hardships and major changes to their daily lives that could be ahead, said one White House official.

Trump consistently downplayed the risk from the virus that has now killed 19 people, and questioned the authority of some public health experts. When the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. stood at 15 last month, he told reporters the number would soon be going to zero. He also predicted the virus would be gone by April, though the reported cases have only been accelerating across the globe as that month approaches.

In public, Trump’s other top deputies have mirrored their boss's tone. On Friday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told reporters that the virus is “being contained.” That same day, top economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the virus “looks relatively contained” and that “the vast majority of Americans are not at risk for this virus.”

The current FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, briefed reporters on Saturday alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at the White House. Both officials could not say how many total people have been tested in the U.S., but said 48 states now had the ability to use the diagnostic testing.

When asked why the president and vice president have been on different pages in public remarks when it comes to the availability of public testing, Azar said Trump was using “shorthand” when he suggested anyone who wants a test can get one.

“What he meant to say is we’re not in the way of that,” Azar explained. “And he knows the numbers. We brief him daily on these numbers.”

Trump essentially acknowledged there was a political consideration to his decision-making process on the virus Friday when he said he didn’t want passengers being held on a cruise ship off the coast of California to be brought back into the U.S. because he believed that move would make the number of cases appear to spike.

“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said when asked about bringing the passengers ashore. “I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault. And it wasn't the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn't their fault either and they're mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I'd rather have them stay on, personally.”

But with testing expected to increase — the White House says it will have millions of tests available next week compared to the number of tests in the low thousands that have been conducted so far — and the virus spreading in more than half the states so far, the situation is likely to change dramatically, Trump’s former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned on Saturday.

“We may be entering a period of accelerating cases. The country could look very different over next two weeks,” Gottlieb tweeted. “We’ll get through this, but need to take steps now to limit the scope and impact of virus. There are things we can do now to help ourselves."

One White House officials said that is the type of messaging they believe the administration needs to be getting out.