The furor over President Donald Trump’s toxic suggestion that the coronavirus might be treated with an injection of disinfectant mounted Sunday as the President avoided the briefing room and one of his top medical advisers insisted his remarks were misinterpreted.
After several days in which state public health officials have rushed to issue urgent warnings to Americans about the dangers of ingesting disinfectants, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, sidestepped the opportunity to amplify that message Sunday.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper what the American people should know about disinfectants and the human body, she instead defended the President’s tendency to muse aloud about his ideas as he processes new information, and suggested that the media had missed the point of the White House presentation.
Birx noted that when Trump made the remark Thursday, he was engaged in a “dialogue” with William Bryan, the acting head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, about a study detailing the use of light and disinfectants to help kill the coronavirus on surfaces.
“I think I’ve made it clear that this was a musing, as you described,” Birx told Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday, dodging a question about whether she’s bothered by having to spend time discussing the President’s comments, by criticizing “the news cycle.”
“I think we’re missing the bigger pieces of what we need to be doing as an American people to continue to protect one another,” Birx said. “We should be having that dialogue about asymptomatics. We should be having that dialogue about this unique clotting that we’re seeing.”
Bruised by the avalanche of negative coverage and reprimands from public health experts, Trump retreated into the recesses of the White House this weekend, emerging only on Twitter where he aired his grievances about his press coverage. He took no questions at his briefing Friday and in a departure from recent weeks, there was no White House press conference Saturday and none scheduled for Sunday.
Two officials said Sunday the White House is planning more economy-focused events in the coming days and weeks, as Axios first reported. That could include more roundtables with CEOs and workers meant to highlight efforts to spur an economic recovery. Aides believe Trump is better positioned to drive an economic message rather than a health one, officials said, a fact they feel was proven true after this week’s disinfectant disaster. The events could also provide a venue for the President to continue engaging with the media — through Oval Office or Cabinet Room sprays — without continuing the daily briefings.
The President’s absence from the podium may be the best medicine for Americans at a time when some states are beginning to reopen and residents are looking for guidance from scientists and medical experts about whether it is safe to venture from their homes.
For weeks now as aides and allies have urged Trump to stop doing daily briefings, the President has commandeered the microphone, dispensing self-congratulatory assessments of his administration’s handling of the pandemic rifled with inaccuracies. He has downplayed the desperate shortages in personal protective equipment and Covid-19 testing equipment. He has railed at state officials who don’t seem sufficiently grateful to him and snapped at reporters for “nasty questions” and unflattering news coverage.
Instead of focusing on scientific guidance from doctors and experts, under Trump’s control have been more political than informative, often taking on the braggadocios tone of the President’s rallies. The imbalance of self-promotion and facts has led to worries among Democrats about the fact that former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic rival, has no equivalent platform.
While Trump does share the microphone with his medical advisers like Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, the President’s own statements about the coronavirus at the podium have been threaded with falsehoods and errors, often stoking confusion that has to be cleared up later by his team.
On Thursday, Trump veered into dangerous territory as he questioned whether it would be possible to kill the coronavirus by streaming light into the body or through a shot of disinfectant.
With aides clearly concerned that contradicting him might lead to their exits during a pandemic, no one corrected him in that moment. On Thursday in the midst of Trump’s tangent about disinfectant, Birx stared hard at the floor, briefly telling him when he asked, that she’d never heard of sun or heat as a coronavirus treatment.
The consequences were serious: in the past few days state officials and disinfectant manufacturers repeatedly warned Americans about the dangers of using chemicals or household cleaners in any other manner than what is printed on the label.
During a Saturday afternoon briefing, Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike reported a significant increase in calls to poison control, including, she said, someone who tried using a detergent-based solution like a sinus rinse and another person who gargled with a bleach and mouthwash mixture in an effort to kill germs.
“Injecting, ingesting, snorting household cleaners is dangerous,” Ezike warned. “It is not advised and can be deadly.”
Trump’s controversial comments offered an opening to Biden, who weighed in on Twitter: “I can’t believe I have to say this,” Biden tweeted Friday, but please don’t drink bleach.”
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday likened the President’s suggestion to “embalming,” telling Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “We spend a lot of time on what the President said, when, and – disinfectant in the body. You know what they call that? They call that embalming. That’s the medical term.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that his state’s poison control hotline has now received “hundred of calls” from people “asking about injecting or ingesting these disinfectants.”
“I think it is critical that the President of the United States – when people are really scared and in the middle of this worldwide pandemic – that in these press conferences, that we really get the facts out there,” Hogan told CBS.
Shifting explanations from the White House
In the midst of shifting explanations from the White House about the context of Trump’s remarks in Thursday evening’s briefing, the President hinted Saturday that his days at the briefing room podium might be coming to an end.
In one tweet, Trump questioned the value of holding White House press briefings, saying they are “not worth the time & effort” if the media is going to just ask “nothing but hostile questions.” Trump also noted the “record ratings” for his appearances.
In a subsequent tweet, he tried to rewrite the narrative about his own early skepticism about the origins and potential spread of Covid-19.
“I never said the pandemic was a Hoax! Who would say such a thing?” Trump tweeted Saturday. “I said that the Do Nothing Democrats, together with their Mainstream Media partners, are the Hoax. They have been called out & embarrassed on this, even admitting they were wrong, but continue to spread the lie!”
As CNN has reported, Trump used the term hoax when he compared Democratic criticism of the administration’s response to the virus to their efforts to impeach him: “This is their new hoax,” he said at a February 28 rally in South Carolina.
Trump continued to try to shift blame to reporters for misunderstanding him throughout the weekend.
During a Friday bill signing ceremony in the Oval Office, Trump insisted he had made the comments sarcastically to reporters, even though there was no hint of sarcasm in his Thursday delivery.
“I was asking a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside. But it does kill it, and it would kill it on the hands, and that would make things much better. That was done in the form of a sarcastic question to the reporters,” Trump said Friday.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the President’s remarks were simply taken out of context.
On Saturday, Trump continued the debate, curiously quibbling with the fact that reporters had recounted his back-and-forth with Birx about the effect of heat, sun and light on the coronavirus, asserting that he was speaking to “our Laboratory expert, not Deborah, about sunlight etc. & Coronavirus.”
Shortly before Trump’s Thursday remarks, he had been briefed by Bryan, who had presented findings from a study about whether the spread of coronavirus could be slowed by warmer weather.
Bryan summarized the study in the briefing room, also discussing how ultraviolet rays and disinfectants, including bleach and alcohol, may shorten the life of the virus. (Bryan does not have a medical background and is not a scientist.)
That seemed to carry Trump’s train of thought toward the notion that disinfectant might be used inside the body: “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?” Trump said Thursday during the briefing. “Because you see it gets on the lungs and does a tremendous number on the lungs.”
On “State of the Union” Sunday, Birx said the President “understood” after he turned to her during Thursday’s briefing, asked about the impact of the light and heat on coronavirus, “that it was not [used] as a treatment.”
She said what got lost in the debate was that the “study was critically important for the American people.”
“We had an MIT study just from a few weeks ago that suggests when people are talking and singing, aerosolized virus could be moving forward. What this study showed for the first time is that sunlight can impact that aerosolization outside,” Birx told Tapper.
“This is why we asked them to do it. We’re trying to understand why people should be wearing masks,” Birx added. “You’re wearing masks because you could have asymptomatic infection and you will decrease your transmission to others. I think the half-life in the sunlight is very important as we move forward to really understand how we can effectively create decontaminations in different environments.”
McEnany pushed back on reporters’ questions Saturday over whether the White House was sending mixed messages about the context of the President’s suggestion.
“Taking a sarcastic comment and running with negative headlines is the definition of taking something out of context, so I believe those answers are very much in sync,” she told reporters at the White House.
McEnany would not say whether the President plans to dial back his participation in the coronavirus task force briefings after his abrupt departure from the briefing room Friday.
“I leave that to the President,” she said. “That’s entirely his decision, but I believe the President is at his best when he’s speaking directly to the American people.”
When asked why he did not take questions Friday, she noted that “the President has taken questions for 49 briefings since the end of February.”
This story has been updated with additional comments from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Dr. Deborah Birx on “State of the Union,” comments from Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on “Face the Nation,” and reporting about the White House’s plans for more economy-focused events.
CNN’s Aaron Pellish, Alison Main, Chuck Johnston and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.