The Trump administration is aiming to wind down its coronavirus taskforce in the coming month as the president shifts his focus from battling an “invisible enemy” to rebooting the economy.
Its members have become fixtures on television sets across the nation, with Americans hungry for information and marooned at home, but the White House has begun discussions about winding down the group, which has been meeting less frequently, vice president Mike Pence said.
“I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the taskforce to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level,” Mr Pence said, adding that the group could wind down by early June.
“We’re now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening,” Donald Trump said on a visit to Arizona, “and we’ll have a different group, probably, set up for that.”
Asked about his statements in February playing down the threat of the virus, he told ABC in an interview that medical experts had also underestimated the risk and added: “I want to be optimistic. I don’t want to be Mr Doom and Gloom.
“It’s a very bad subject. I’m not looking to tell the American people, when nobody really knows what is happening yet, ‘Oh, this is going to be so tragic’.”
Mr Trump is seeking to move his focus away from the virus’s spread and towards more familiar — and, aides hope, politically 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, Mr Trump has been trying to highlight his administration’s work in helping businesses and employees rebound.
Aides said he would hold more frequent round tables with chief executives, 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.
Mr Pence told reporters at a White House briefing that the US could be “in a very different place” by late May and early June “as we continue to practise 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.
Deborah Birx, the taskforce co-ordinator, said the federal government would still keep a close eye on the data if the group 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.
Mr Trump and his White House team have been operating in a virus-safe bubble, thanks to rapid coronavirus tests provided to senior staff and anyone who meets the president.
He has been repeatedly talking up the 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”, with more than seven million now completed, even as some experts say millions more people must be tested every week for the country to reopen safely.
The president had earlier visited an Arizona face mask factory, using the trip to demonstrate his determination to see an easing of stay-at-home orders.
He did not wear a mask despite guidelines saying they should be worn inside the factory at all times.
“The people of our country should think of themselves as warriors. We have to open,” he said.
“I’m not saying anything is perfect, and yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”