The move away from daily task force meetings and toward events highlighting the economy comes as the virus continues to rage in parts of the country and as testing shortfalls persist. Still, as curves begin to flatten in certain areas and states begin the process of reopening, Trump — who has become progressively more frustrated at a precarious political moment — is keen to show signs of progress.
Over the last several days, an exasperated President lashed out at aides, the media and Democrats in what multiple sources described to CNN as one of the most frustrated moments of his presidency.
Task force meetings, which occur in the basement Situation Room, usually last a minimum of 90 minutes as aides go over the latest data before the once-daily press briefing. But there was no briefing this weekend, and the meeting Saturday moved relatively quickly, a person who attended said.
That could presage things to come. While a briefing was initially listed on Monday’s public White House schedule, the press secretary later said there would be no dedicated question-and-answer session after all. Instead, Trump may answer questions when he meets with business executives in the afternoon.
There will be some briefings later in the week, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters at the White House, but they “might have a new look to them, a new focus to them.” She declined to provide further details.
There had been a concerted effort among aides and allies to convince Trump to stop conducting the daily coronavirus briefings, multiple sources told CNN, after concerns they were causing the President steep political damage.
After weeks of briefings that sometimes stretched more than two hours, a general agreement emerged in the West Wing that some of the news conferences have gone on too long, resulting in a situation where Trump got sidetracked on non-coronavirus related issues. The result, aides have noticed, is that the briefings stray into politics, arguments and venting instead of the matter at hand.
Instead of a stoic wartime leader, Trump has come across as angry and aggrieved at not getting credit for his efforts — an image that hasn’t endeared him to Americans, according to polls, which have shown his approval rating dropping after an initial bump.
Some White House aides also view an eventual phasing-out of the briefings as a sign from Washington to the country that life is slowing returning to normal. They see the briefings as a set-piece of the crisis era, which Trump is desperate to see end.
On Monday, the White House invited retail executives for a meeting in the Cabinet Room to discuss that beleaguered industry as the administration prepares more specific guidance on how different sectors can reopen.
The new economic focus could also include domestic travel, potentially as soon as this week, one official said, though the official cautioned that plans haven’t been finalized for the President to leave the White House after weeks spent inside the executive mansion and West Wing. Like almost all the President’s pre-outbreak official travel, he is not expected to spend the night on the road.
He continued the Twitter assaults on Monday, returning to a favorite insult by declaring “FAKE NEWS, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”
Meanwhile, divisions are emerging among the staff in the West Wing. The new White House communications team has decided to retake control of the coronavirus messaging that Pence’s staff had been handling.
The new chief of staff, Mark Meadows, installed a new press secretary and communications advisers when he replaced ousted chief Mick Mulvaney, who had allowed the task force operations to coalesce under Pence’s office after he was tapped to lead the panel in late February.
That brought a heightened sense of mission to what was then a group racked with infighting and poor communication.
The public pushback came after multiple calls between Trump, Azar, Meadows and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who addressed the stories in the conversations and worked through the best way to respond, according to people familiar with the matter.
Even as the task force scales back its meeting frequency, the panel will still weigh key guidelines and recommendations as parts of the country move to reopen. The administration could issue as early as this week a new set of guidelines on opening specific types of businesses as Trump looks to revive the US economy, people familiar with the matter say.
The new guidelines would provide more detailed recommendations on how to reopen restaurants, child care centers, camps, public transportation and places of worship, with a focus on keeping people spaced apart and hygiene practices ramped up to prevent the coronavirus from re-spreading.
Members of the task force have been weighing a set of recommendations produced by the US Centers on Disease Control and Prevention that includes items such as keeping tables separated and improving indoor ventilation.
One official says that lobbying interests have flooded the White House in recent days hoping to influence the recommendations, which could have an effect on businesses’ bottom lines.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.