Trump faces credibility test as he plays down virus threat

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President Donald Trump with members of the president's coronavirus task force speaks during a news conference at the Brady press briefing room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump faces a critical personal challenge in grappling with the new coronavirus outbreak: asking Americans to believe him after he and some of his top advisers have contradicted federal scientists in playing down the threat.

Keenly aware of the stakes not just for public health but also his credibility, Trump conducted a lengthy press conference Wednesday evening aimed at reassuring everyone that he has the crisis well in hand.

Trump surrounded himself with his administration's top health experts. And he encouraged Americans to be prepared for the virus' potential spread.

But he continued to minimize the risk, saying the outbreak “may get a little bigger; it may not get bigger at all.” And he continued to distance himself from the stated opinion of public health officials that it's inevitable the virus will spread within the United States.

As businesses, schools and people in general think about preparing, the X-factor may be an unpredictable president who has clashed repeatedly with scientists in his own administration and tends to see any crisis through the lens of his own reelection chances.

“I don't think it's inevitable,” Trump said at the news conference, where he announced Vice President Mike Pence would lead the administration's response to the outbreak. “I think it has a chance that it could get worse. There is a chance you can get fairly substantially worse. But nothing's inevitable.”

He also said he had recently learned that thousands die from the flu each year, contrasting that to the coronavirus.

After two days of the stock market tumbling, Trump took to Twitter Wednesday morning to blame the media and Democrats for causing undue alarm and harming American financial markets.