Donald Trump says he will announce guidelines to reopen the economy on Thursday, with the US president claiming the country has passed the peak of new coronavirus cases as the death toll topped 28,000 people.
“The data suggests that nationwide we are past the peak,” Mr Trump said. “These encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalise guidelines for states on reopening the country.”
Mr Trump said some US states could reopen before May 1. His comments came a day after Anthony Fauci, one of the two top scientists on the coronavirus task force, told the Associated Press that it was “overly optimistic” to view early May as a goal for much of the country.
“We want to get our country back . . . and we’re going to do it soon,” said Mr Trump, adding that governors were “chomping at the bit”.
But many state leaders have suggested they are not ready to relax social distancing. Speaking alongside Mr Trump, Deborah Birx, the other top scientist on the task force, said some states had suffered “very few cases”. But she said governors and mayors would have to “make decisions after generalised guidelines are put out” to determine what the best path was.
In a much shorter news conference than usual, Mr Trump hit out at Democrats for holding up his political appointees — who require Senate confirmation — and threatened to use a provision of the constitution to force Congress to adjourn, allowing him to make “recess” appointments.
He also repeated his attack on the World Health Organization, accusing the body of favouring China even though Washington provides much more funding than Beijing. Mr Trump on Tuesday said he would halt funding for the WHO, sparking condemnation from US allies and fierce criticism from Democrats.
Also on Tuesday, the US Internal Revenue Service was preparing to print economic stimulus cheques that would carry a president’s signature for the first time, thereby possibly slowing down the process of sending them out.
Democrats slammed both moves as the latest effort to shift blame for the crisis while trying to take credit for measures — passed by Congress after talks with his administration — aimed at easing the pain for Americans.
“The president’s vanity is preventing people from paying their bills,” said Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
But Mr Trump on Wednesday rejected the criticism, saying he was “sure people will be very happy to get a big fat beautiful cheque and my name is on it”. Treasury dismissed suggestions that the move would delay the cheques.
Mr Trump has faced criticism for his response to the pandemic, over everything from his fights with governors over their requests for more federal help, to his refusal to take responsibility for problems in addressing the pandemic. Asked a month ago to rate his performance, Mr Trump said he gave himself a 10.
Seven weeks ago Mr Trump said that the virus would disappear “like a miracle”. A record 2,492 people died over the past 24 hours, the first time new fatalities topped 2,000 for two consecutive days.
Over the past two months, Mr Trump has moved from playing down the threat of the virus to blaming China.
He has recently shifted to targeting the WHO, in asserting that it helped China conceal the extent of the pandemic.
In response to a question from the cable television channel Fox News, he refused to confirm reports that US intelligence was confident that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab and was spread from there to the population. “I don’t want to say that . . . but I will tell you more and more we’re hearing the story.”
Critics have pointed out that Mr Trump praised China in an interview with the Fox Business channel in February, in which he called the WHO “fantastic”.
Ben Cardin, a top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said the move to freeze WHO funding was another example of Mr Trump deflecting blame. “Yet again, President Trump chastises others for perceived mistakes while falsely claiming his response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the US was perfect,” he said.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi