PHOENIX (AP) — Making himself Exhibit A, President Donald Trump visited an Arizona face mask factory Tuesday, using the trip to demonstrate his determination to see the country reopen even as the coronavirus remains a dire threat. At the same time, the White House said it hopes to wind down its virus task force in the next month.
After more than a month cooped up in Washington, with little exposure to how the virus has been affecting Americans' day-to-day lives, Trump got a first-hand view of one big impact. At the airport, Air Force One parked next to dozens of grounded commercial airliners with covered engines and taped-over probes and vents.
Trump was to spend less than two and a half hours on the ground in Phoenix touring the Honeywell factory and holding a roundtable on Native American issues. But aides said the trip would be worth the nearly eight hours of flight time as a symbolic show that the nation is taking steps back to normalcy. The trip was also expected to be a marker of Trump’s return to a regular travel schedule, as he hopes the nation, too, will begin to emerge from seven weeks of virus-imposed isolation.
“The people of our country should think of themselves as warriors. We have to open,” Trump declared as he left Washington on a trip that was more about the journey than the destination.
Trump sees economic revival as a political imperative, as his allies have noted an erosion in support for the president in recent weeks. Republicans believe Trump’s path to a second term depends on the public’s perception of how quickly the economy rebounds from shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the virus.
That includes in Arizona, a key swing state, which Trump carried by less than four points in 2016.
“I love Arizona. I have a lot of friends in Arizona. I’ve had great success over the years in Arizona," Trump boasted as he left.
But even as many Americans have adhered to strict social distancing guidelines, the numbers of new infections and deaths from the virus have not decreased as quickly as hoped. Indeed, when the New York metropolitan area’s progress against the virus is taken out of the out of the equation, numbers for the rest of the U.S. are moving in the wrong direction. The infection rate is rising even as states move to lift their lockdowns, an Associated Press analysis found Tuesday.
Nonetheless, the White House was been engaged in discussions about winding down its coronavirus task force, which has already been meeting less frequently, Vice President Mike Pence said at the White House. Members of the group have become fixtures on television sets across the nation, with Americans hungry for information and marooned at home.
“I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency by agency level," Pence said. He said the group could wind down its work by early June.
Trump, meanwhile, is seeking to pivot his focus away from the virus's spread and toward more familiar — and, aides hope, safer — ground: talking up the economy. As more states have begun to ease closure orders, despite warnings that that could lead to spikes in new cases, Trump has been trying to highlight his administration’s work in helping businesses and employees rebound.
“The governors, it’s in their hands, but our country wants to open,” Trump said before leaving Washington, again pushing responsibility to the states for how to safely reopen even as the virus continues to spread.
To that point, aides said the president would be holding more frequent roundtables with CEOs, business owners and beneficiaries of the trillions of dollars in federal aid already approved by Congress, and begin to outline what he hopes to see in a future “phase four” recovery package.
Pence told reporters at a White House briefing Tuesday that the U.S. could be “in a very different place” come late May and early June “as we continue to practice social distancing and states engage in safe and responsible reopening plans.” The administration is beginning to eye that window as the appropriate time for federal agencies to begin managing the pandemic response "in a more traditional way," he said.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, said the federal government would still keep a close eye on the data if the task force disbands.
"It took us a while to build that capacity and we’ll make sure that we’re watching that at a federal level," she said.
Trump and his White House team have been operating in a virus-safe bubble, thanks to the rapid tests provided to senior staff and anyone who meets with the president.
The trip could be the first time Trump dons a face mask, which many companies are now requiring for employees. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks when they can't socially distance, such as in supermarkets and pharmacies, especially in places with high community transmission.
“I haven’t decided because I don’t know,” Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews. He'd said earlier that "if it was a mask environment, I would have no problem."
Trump has been repeatedly talking up his administration's response to the virus, despite persistent criticism that he dragged his feet and failed to adequately increase production of personal protective equipment and testing supplies.
“We did everything right. Now it’s time to get back to work," he said. He added that the country has "the best testing,” even as some experts say that millions more people must be tested every week for the country to safely reopen.
And Trump pledged to rebuild the county's economy, saying, "I view these last couple of days as a beginning.”
Trump also defended his decision to block Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, from testifying in front of the Democratic-controlled House, though Fauci was given the OK to testify in front of the Republican-controlled Senate.
“The House is a bunch of Trump haters,” Trump said. He claimed Democrats "frankly want our situation to be unsuccessful, which means death.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to respond.
“It’s not worth getting into,” she said.
Colvin and Superville reported from Washington.