President Donald Trump finds himself in uncharted political waters as he stares down the biggest challenge of his presidency -- a global pandemic that is simultaneously exposing flaws in the federal government’s disaster preparedness and response capabilities, while simultaneously wreaking havoc on an economy key to his reelection chances.
Eager to move past the economic crisis brought on by the public health one, he has charted out an optimistic Easter Sunday timeline to “reopen” the country, or at least large sections of it, for 'normal' business -- despite health experts warning there is no evidence the virus's spread will have abated by then.
"I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” the president declared Tuesday. “I just thought it was a beautiful time. It would be a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It’s a great day."
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But while the president has found ways to bend the mechanics of the federal government to his will in the past, the president is coming up against the reality that pandemics don’t operate on political timelines.
"You've got to understand that you don't make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, said on CNN Wednesday night.
Fauci said the president’s health adviser had a conversation with the president Tuesday and explained the need to be “really very flexible.”
“You can look at a date, but you got to be very flexible. And on a literally day-by-day and week-by-week basis, you need to evaluate the feasibility of what you’re trying to do,” Fauci said.
The president has since moderated his Easter goal somewhat, now saying there will be a “recommendation” by or before Easter.
Even as the president pledges to listen to his health experts, he is listening to his economic advisers in the other ear, while keeping eye on the instability in the stock market and the record-breaking 3.2 million weekly jobless claims reported Thursday.
The tug-of-war between the public health and economic concerns was on display in Wednesday’s press briefing, with the president following up on a promise not to “do anything rash or hastily” by expressing concern at the shuttered state of the economy.
“But the country wants to get back to work,” Trump said. “Our country was built to get back to work. We don't have the -- a country where they say, ‘Hey, let's close it down for two years.; We can’t do that. It's not our country.”
The president has struggled to apply his usual political playbook to a pandemic immune to his typical name-calling and attempts to distract.
Instead, he has tried to paint himself as the hero who wants Americans to return to work and the media as the evil force trying to prevent the economy from thriving.
"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."
In reality, governors and local officials nationwide have called the shots, closing schools, non-essential businesses and more for weeks despite Trump signaling his opposition to a longer-term shutdown.
With campaign rallies cancelled and social distancing in force, the president has not left the White House in 16 days, other than a brief visit to the Washington headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week.
To fill the void and to stay in the spotlight, Trump has appeared before the press every day for the last two weeks, almost every time in the White House briefing room.
Surrounded by obsequious deputies and often uncomfortable-looking public health experts, the president has turned the lengthy news conferences into rallies of a sort. While the medical experts do participate, the president takes center stage to spar with reporters, lob insults and make evidence-challenged claims.
But with critics saying he is spreading misinformation and being overtly political, some television networks have stopped airing the entire briefings live, leading the White House to vent publicly.
ABC News' Karen Travers contributed to this report.