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COVID-19 Briefing: Trump Attacks Media, Says Only He Can Reopen Economy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is defending his response to the coronavirus pandemic. At the White House briefing last night, he pushed back against detailed critical accounts of his leadership in this crisis. In a pandemic that has now killed more than 23,000 Americans, the president focused on a familiar enemy - the media. President Trump also made the false claim that he can order states to reopen their economies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The federal government has absolute power. It has the power. As to whether or not I'll use that power, we'll see.

MARTIN: In reality, the U.S. Constitution reserves many powers for Congress, the courts, the states and the people. NPR's Scott Detrow was watching that briefing and joins us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this was different from some other performances by the president, wasn't it?

DETROW: Yeah, even against the baseline of the tenor and tone of a lot of these briefings and the Trump presidency as a whole, this was an angry and defensive briefing. And here's the context. Several news outlets, including The New York Times - which the president was mostly focused on - had published lengthy stories in recent days looking back at the early days of the pandemic, January, particularly February, at times when President Trump and many senior advisers were downplaying the threat of coronavirus and were not taking the drastic steps that they and most states ended up taking in March.

This clearly got to President Trump. He spent the first 45 minutes or more of this briefing just attacking the media and defending himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: All I'm saying is this - how do you close down the greatest economy in the history of the world when, on January 17, you have no cases and no death?

DETROW: And this is the latest in an increased emphasis on the president going back to try to reframe what happened in those early months rather than focus on the current response. Still it's well documented; tests were slow to roll out, and there's still a lot of problems with federal coordination of response efforts and supplies. And there's a lot of reporting that President Trump was, in fact, slow to embrace the big national steps that could have curbed the spread of the virus.

MARTIN: Right. So later today, the president says he's going to unveil this task force whose job will be putting together a plan to reopen the country. But let's just be clear on this, Scott - is this a decision that is actually under the president's authority?

DETROW: Well, when it comes to offering guidelines and a road map, there is a lot of demand for some sort of cohesive national plan here. But when it comes to the legal authority, that's something that happens on the state level, with the governors and the mayors who ordered those restrictions and closed schools to begin with. And even though for much of last week President Trump was saying that he is deferring to the governors, he seemed to - this idea seemed to get under his skin.

He said something pretty notable yesterday, that the president has the ultimate authority to reopen the economy. That is constitutionally not the case, especially, again, in a situation where it was state laws to begin with.

And that being the case, it's notable that you have two groups of states, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. Collectively, these governors represent more than 100 million people. They announced yesterday they are going to work together. They are going to coordinate and look at the data and make the decision themselves on when to start reopening things.

MARTIN: The president also played this video during the press conference last night that we should mention. Explain what that was about.

DETROW: Yeah, many critics have said these briefings often substitute for the Trump campaign rallies that the president can't hold right now, that they're just political in nature. So it was striking that he paused in the middle of this briefing for what amounted to a campaign ad showing clips, with music behind him, of him making announcements like shutting down flights from China and things like that, showing clips of the media giving him credit for those steps. Though Maggie Haberman, The New York Times reporter who was quoted in it, said that she was taken out of context.

The president did say that it was White House staffers who put this video together - government employees, not a campaign staff.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Scott Detrow for us this morning. Scott, thank you.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.