In Depth

Reaction: Donald Trump storms out of press briefing as US death toll passes 80,000

President declares victory over coronavirus before telling journalist to turn scrutiny on China

Donald Trump has stormed out of a White House press conference called to celebrate his response to a crisis that has now killed more than 80,000 Americans.

The president’s sudden exit on Monday is just the latest in a series of unexpected twists at his coronavirus Q&A sessions. Last month, having previously denied that Covid-19 posed a serious threat, Trump suggested that bleach might cure the disease if taken internally.

Now, the president has “trampled over his own message with an ugly controversy involving race that also highlighted his frequent disdain for female journalists”, says CNN.

The row began when he told journalists that the US testing regime was “unmatched and unrivalled anywhere in the world, and it’s not even close”.

CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang responded: “Why does that matter? Why is it global competition to you, if every day Americans are still losing their lives and we are still seeing more cases every day?”

“They’re losing their lives everywhere in the world,” Trump fired back. “And maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me. Ask China that question, OK? If you ask them that question, you may get a very unusual answer.”

Jiang - who was born in China but has lived in the US since she was two - then asked the president why he was “saying that to me, specifically”. 

“I’m not saying it specifically to anybody,” Trump insisted. “I’m saying that to anyone who would ask a nasty question like that.”

The US leader was “growing visibly irate”, reports CNBC, and drew proceedings to a close following a bad-tempered exchange about who would ask the next question.

His behaviour has been condemned by a number of commentators including former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who tweeted that the exchange was “pretty pathetic” and described Trump as “a coward who tears down others to make himself feel powerful”. 

Some critics pointed to a pattern in the US leader’s attacks. “The president’s unprofessionalism is always revealed most clearly when he is interacting with female reporters,” tweeted Olivia Nuzzi of New York Magazine.

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Trump has often been accused of “adopting a particularly harsh or patronising tone at press conferences to women in general and women of colour in particular”, says The Guardian.

In his latest clash, race may have played a more direct role. As CNBC notes, Trump has previously “accused China of withholding information” about Covid-19, and has “suggested that the virus could have been accidentally released from a Chinese laboratory, an allegation for which US intelligence agencies have so far said they have no evidence”.

CBS reporter Jiang claimed back in March “that a White House official referred to the coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to her face”, Vox reports.

“This shtick may have served him well at times, but in the context of the pandemic, one can see why his advisers reportedly concluded weeks ago that these press conferences are doing him no favours,” the news site adds.

CNN reports that Monday’s briefing had been “surreal” from the get-go, “as reporters struggled to make their questions audible over muffling face masks”. 

Along with the event’s relocation from the briefing room to the Rose Garden, the masks were the result of a “White House coronavirus outbreak, which graphically undermines Trump’s claims the country is safe to open”, the site says.

Several White House aides, including one of Trump’s valets, have now tested positive for Covid-19. Meanwhile, the country’s confirmed death toll passed the 80,000 milestone shortly before the president began his address to the assembled press.

Yet Trump talked only of success, presenting “his management of the emergency as a famous victory”, says CNN. 

“In every generation,” he said, “through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task. We have met the moment and we have prevailed.”

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