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Trump Could Recommend Airlines Ground More Flights

President Trump listens during Wednesday's press briefing with the White House coronavirus task force.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump listens during Wednesday's press briefing with the White House coronavirus task force.

Updated at 7:29 p.m. ET

President Trump says he may consider grounding some or all flights as a coronavirus pandemic mitigation measure but also said on Wednesday he wants to apply the lightest touch possible in managing the disaster.

Trump acknowledged that he may wind up making some "recommendations" to airlines that continue to operate from some of the worst-afflicted places, especially New York City. But he also told reporters that he hesitates to apply too much of that kind of pressure because it would be difficult for airlines to then start operating again as before.

"Those are very big decisions from the standpoint of the future of our country," Trump said.

The president said he wants to take the same approach with governors who so far haven't issued stay-at-home orders that mandate the closures of most businesses and for most people to stay in. Every state is different and not each one needs something like that, Trump said.

"You have to give a little bit of flexibility ... a state in the Midwest, Alaska, that doesn't have a problem? It's awfully tough to say 'Close it down,' so we have to have a little bit of flexibility."

Trump addressed reporters at the White House one day after thehistoric news conference at which his pandemic specialists told Americans to brace for 100,000 or more deaths in the coming weeks.

Trump repeated that concession on Wednesday but he also used the news conference as an opening to advertise what he called his administration's tough policies on Venezuela. National security officials appeared with the president in the first part of the briefing to discuss new deployments of ships and aircraft to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to put pressure on cocaine smugglers.

Trump claimed that applying pressure to cocaine smuggling also would help stanch the entry of people into the United States who might be carrying the coronavirus, but those effects are likely to be negligible.

Smugglers use speedboats, semi-submersible vessels and small aircraft to ferry bales of cocaine into the United States — conveyances different from those used by so-called "coyotes" who bring humans over the land border with Mexico and seldom suited for transporting more people than their own crews of one or two.

Military copes with the virus

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, who appeared with Trump in the first part of the briefing, acknowledged that work continues to take the crew off the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has been sidelined by the coronavirus.

The ship made port in Guam with an outbreak aboard so severe its captain released an extraordinary open letter pleading for the Pentagon to permit him to offload the crew and free the ship from its deployment.

Gilday said on Wednesday that work was underway taking roughly 2,700 people off the Theodore Roosevelt, treating or testing them. Navy officials said at a separate briefing on Wednesday they plan to try to house personnel from the ship on Guam, according to a report by USNI News.

It isn't clear what will happen to the Theodore Roosevelt, a crown jewel of American seapower, which sails with a wing of combat aircraft and is powered by a pair of nuclear reactors.

Gilday said the ship "is fully operational now and will remain so."

There have been a number of military cases of coronavirus and authorities are working to try to continue to operate and mitigate the effects of the pandemic. What Trump and the national security leaders sought to show on Wednesday at their briefing was they can do both at once.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he rejects the "narrative" that the military must shut down in order to fight the virus; it remains dedicated to its mission and operational, he said.

Renewed skepticism about China

Trump and national security adviser Robert O'Brien wouldn't directly address reports that said the White House had received intelligence reports about the lethality of the coronavirus earlier this year as it ripped through its epicenter in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

But the leaders did say they didn't believe the reports given by Chinese authorities about the fatalities there.

Trump and his supporters have been angry about what they called concealmentor false statements by China about the virus — if the world had known sooner about its ferocity, they argue, the United States and other nations could have prepared.

Reports from last month suggested that nearly 50,000 people may have died in Wuhan — as compared with China's official claim that about 2,500 people may have died.

China's prevarication about the outbreak harmed the world and its ability to prepare, according to many hawks in Washington. O'Brien emphasized that he couldn't give a sense about the real magnitude of the disaster in China.

"We're not in a position to confirm numbers coming out of China," he said. "There's lots of public reporting as to whether those numbers are too low ... we just have no way to confirm any of those numbers.

Emphasis on social distancing

Public health authorities continue to emphasize what they called the need for Americans to keep apart — away from groups of more than 10 — and mostly to stay in their homes and wash their hands.

Trump repeated his endorsement on Wednesday about the prospect for people to cover their faces in public, although there remained no solid guidance about that from public health officials. Trump himself acknowledged the disagreements about it.

Until the matter is resolved, the president said Americans should just hold fast through the coming weeks.

"Keep away," he said. "Keep away. If you don't get it, it solves a lot a problems."

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Philip Ewing
Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
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