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Trump changes tone, gets real on virus threat

(AP) — 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 new, more urgent tone on Monday as he delivered a sobering message to Americans grappling with a new reality that will dramatically alter their lives for months to come.

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 — at least for now — 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.

With reports from Italy growing grimmer, U.S. cases surging and America’s economy in shock, Trump has also received a series of alarming briefings in recent days that have included dire projections about how many Americans could be infected if drastic action isn’t taken.

He also has watched the dramatic escalation of precautions within the White House complex, where officials are now screening everyone who enters the building after Trump unknowingly interacted with at least three people who have since tested positive for the virus. Already, both his press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, and his outgoing acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, are isolating themselves at home after coming into direct or indirect contact with those who have COVID-19.

And so it was that on Monday, Trump matter-of-factly outlined the government’s newest recommendations, including urging all older Americans and those with chronic health conditions to stay home. All Americans were advised to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

Trump repeatedly deferred to the public health professionals on stage with him to offer specifics and answer follow-up questions, and he acknowledged the disquieting reality that the economy may well be careening toward recession and that Americans’ lives will likely be impacted for far longer than most people have even begun to process.

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