Trump changes his tone, gets real on the coronavirus threat

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President Donald Trump and Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma listen during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, in the Brady press briefing room at the White House, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – He called on the country to come together. He warned of pain to come. And he deferred to the nation's public health experts while at least momentarily putting aside petty squabbling.

After weeks of trying to play down the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump struck a more urgent tone Monday as he delivered a sobering message to Americans grappling with a new reality that will dramatically alter their lives for months to come.

The change in tone lasted a day. But it signaled an urgent new White House response to a crisis that's upending American society.

Trump's more somber tone came as he addressed the public at a White House briefing and made a direct appeal to all Americans to do their part to halt the pandemic's spread.

Gone were Trump’s “do as I say, not as I do” handshakes that had continued even after health experts admonished people to avoid contact and practice social distancing. Also gone was the rosy talk aimed, in part, at propping up reeling financial markets.

The shift was informed in part by a growing realization within the West Wing that the coronavirus crisis is an existential threat to Trump’s presidency, endangering his reelection and his legacy. Trump has told advisers that he now believes the virus will be a significant general election issue and he took note of the clear-eyed, somber tone used by his likely general election foe, Joe Biden, in Sunday’s Democratic debate.

But by Tuesday, the Republican president had returned to lashing out on Twitter at his Democratic critics.

He went after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom he has feuded for days, incongruously chiding him to “keep politics out of" the nation's response to the virus. He then went after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after she criticized him for saying governors should work through their own supply chains to get ventilators and other needed medical equipment instead of relying on the federal government to get it for them.