Donald Trump has accused the media of wanting to keep the US economy shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic to undermine his chances of reelection.
The US president has been pushing to reopen swaths of the country by Easter – 12 April – despite warnings from medical experts that measures such as closing businesses and social distancing need more time to work.
“The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “The real people want to get back to work ASAP. ”
At Wednesday’s White House coronavirus task force briefing, Trump followed up with an aggressive denial that the Easter timeline is based on his political interests. “The media would like to see me do poorly in the election,” he said.
Challenged by a reporter, Trump, who has long used the press as a punching bag, said with exasperation: “Just so you understand – are you ready? – I think there are certain people that would like it not to open so quickly. I think there are certain people that would like it to do financially poorly because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls.”
The president added: “I don’t know if that’s so, but I do think it’s so that there are people in your profession that would like that to happen. I think it’s very clear that there are people in your profession that write fake news.”
Gesturing around the briefing room with his hands, he said: “You do. She does. There are people in your profession that write fake news. They would love to see me – for whatever reason, because we’ve done one hell of a job, nobody’s done the job that we’ve done – and it’s lucky that you have this group here right now for this problem because you wouldn’t even have a country left.”
Trump has long tied his political fortunes to the economy in general and stock market in particular, but the coronavirus outbreak has wiped out the stock gains of his presidency. On Wednesday he reiterated his call for restarting the economy at Easter, even though US infections have now topped 60,000 and scientists have warned of disastrous consequences for public health.
“It’s time,” he said. “People want to get back to work. I want to get our country back.”
But he sought to provide reassurance that he would heed the advice of public health officials. “I’m not going to do anything rash or hastily, I don’t do that.”
People who return to work could still take precautions, Trump claimed. “They’re not going to walk around hugging and kissing each other in the office when they come back. Even though they may feel like it.”
The deadline goal drew criticism from Democratic front runner Joe Biden, the president’s likely opponent in the November election. “Now he’s suggesting he wants to get the country opened – back open by Easter,” Biden told reporters at a virtual press conference. “Look, we all want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, but we have a lot to do to make that possible. We have to do it in a smart way – not on some arbitrary or symbolic timeline.”
The former vice president, speaking via video link from his basement, added: “It would be a catastrophic thing to do for our people and for our economy if we sent people back to work just as we were beginning to see the impact of social distancing take hold only to unleash a second spike in infections.”
Biden’s Democratic primary with Senator Bernie Sanders has been paralysed by the crisis, denying both men political oxygen, and the long term political implications remain unpredictable. Opinion polls suggest a majority of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis, despite his early downplaying of the threat.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Trump also urged Congress to pass a historic $2tn stimulus bill negotiated by his administration and Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate. “I will sign it immediately,” he said, adding that it would mark a “great day for the American worker and American families”.
The bill, delayed by bitter partisan battles, includes funding to send $1,200 cheques to many Americans, $500bn to help distressed companies, including $25bn for airlines, and $367bn in loans to sustain small businesses.
Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, thanked Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell minority leader Chuck Schumer for their efforts. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the unprecedented response from the Senate to protect American workers and American businesses,” he told reporters.
“Our expectation is this bill passes tonight and gets to the House tomorrow. And they pass it. We need to get this money into the American economy and American workers.”
Meanwhile Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that the coronavirus could be seasonal and cyclical. “I know we’ll be successful in putting this down now,” he said. “But we really need to be prepared for another cycle.”
Trump also offered some bizarre digressions, boasting about his efforts to make Nato allies pay more, touting his “big, beautiful wall” and defending the package’s $25m funding for the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
“This was a request from the Democrats because of the fact that they have a facility that’s essentially closed up,” he said. “If I wanted to go there tonight to look at Romeo and Juliet, I’d love to go see Romero and Juliet…”