WASHINGTON — President Trump predicted on Sunday night that the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country may reach as high as 100,000 in the United States, far worse than he had forecast just weeks ago, even as he pressed states to reopen the shuttered economy.
Mr. Trump, who last month forecast that fatalities from the outbreak could be kept “substantially below the 100,000” mark and probably around 60,000, acknowledged that the virus has proved more devastating than expected. But nonetheless, he said that parks, beaches and some businesses should begin reopening now and that schools should resume classes in person by this fall.
“We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people,” the president said in a virtual “town hall” meeting at the Lincoln Memorial hosted by Fox News. “That’s a horrible thing. We shouldn’t lose one person over this.” But he credited himself with preventing the toll from being worse. “If we didn’t do it, the minimum we would have lost was a million two, a million four, a million five, that’s the minimum. We would have lost probably higher, it’s possible higher than 2.2” million.
The death toll passed 67,000 on Sunday, more than the total American deaths in the Vietnam War and already higher than the president’s earlier prediction. More than 1,000 additional deaths have been announced every day since April 2 and while the rate appears to have peaked, it has not begun to fall in a significant, sustained way. The model embraced by the White House a month ago had assumed the death rate would begin to fall substantially by mid-April.
Despite that, Mr. Trump indicated again that he favored lifting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that have cratered the economy and put more than 30 million people out of work, arguing that the government had armed itself enough against the virus to be prepared to curb any additional outbreak even after people begin emerging from their homes to re-enter workplaces and other public spaces.
“At some point we have to open our country,” the president said. “And people are going to be safe. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned about the tremendous contagion. But we have no choice. We can’t stay closed as a country. We’re not going to have a country left.”
Mr. Trump asserted again that the virus would eventually fade. “This virus will pass,” he said. “It will go. Will it come back? It might. It could. Some people say yes. But it will pass.” While he has previously expressed doubt about a second wave in the fall anticipated by public health experts, he conceded that it could happen. “We may have to put out a fire,” he said.
The president’s appearance on Fox, in which he sat at a distance from the hosts at the foot of the Abraham Lincoln statue and took questions sent by video from around the country, came in the middle of a furious debate in the United States about how and when the states should begin restoring a semblance of everyday life. The program was titled “America Together: Returning to Work.”
As of Friday, more than a dozen states had begun to reopen their economies and public life while many others had set plans to do so under certain conditions and with certain precautions, in some cases over the warnings of public health specialists who feared that moving too quickly would reignite a wave of infections.
Mr. Trump predicted that a vaccine would be developed by the end of 2020, which would be sooner than some public health experts anticipate and much faster than any other vaccine for such a major virus. “We are very confident that we’re going to have a vaccine at the end of the year, by the end of the year,” he said. Even if it is developed that soon, though, he did not say whether it could be approved and produced in sufficient quantities for widespread use by then.
The president confirmed that he was warned about the virus, which originated in China, in an intelligence briefing in January, but asserted that it was characterized as if “it was not a big deal.” He said intelligence agencies would release information about his briefings as early as Monday.
“On Jan. 23, I was told that there could be a virus coming in but it was of no real import,” Mr. Trump said. “In other words, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something.’ It was a brief conversation and it was only on Jan. 23. Shortly thereafter, I closed the country to China. We had 23 people in the room and I was the only one in the room who wanted to close it down.”
Mr. Trump was referring to his decision on Jan. 30 to block entry by most foreign nationals coming from China, a move that in fact was supported by a number of his advisers and came only after major American airlines had already canceled flights. Some public health advisers have said that the travel limits helped slow the spread to the United States but that the Trump administration did not use the extra time to adequately prepare by ramping up testing and producing medical equipment.
Mr. Trump said his travel limit, which did not apply to Americans or legal residents, was not driven by the Jan. 23 warning. “I didn’t do it because of what they said,” he said. “They said it very matter of factly. It was not a big deal.”
In forecasting the toll of the virus, the White House had relied on models by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which last month had predicted 60,415 deaths by the first week of August. Last week, the institute increased its estimate to 72,433 by early August. But now the toll looks likely to pass that number within a week.
“It looks like we’re headed to a number substantially below the 100,000,” Mr. Trump had said on April 10. “That would be the low mark. And I hope that bears out.” He said a lower number would amount to a victory for him. “Hard to believe that if you had 60,000 — you could never be happy, but that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told and thinking.”
Because masks are meant to protect other people and he has been tested regularly, Mr. Pence said, he was in keeping with federal guidelines. “I didn’t think it was necessary,” he said. “But I should have wore the mask at the Mayo Clinic.”
The Fox town hall came on a day when Mr. Trump lashed out at former President George W. Bush, who called for national unity in a three-minute video message posted on Saturday.
“Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” Mr. Bush said in the video, which was set against music and photographs of medical workers helping victims of the virus and of ordinary Americans wearing masks. “In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”
While Mr. Bush never mentioned Mr. Trump’s name, the sitting president clearly took the message as an implicit rebuke. In a Twitter message, Mr. Trump paraphrased a Fox News personality saying, “Oh bye the way, I appreciate the message from former President Bush, but where was he during Impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside.”
Mr. Trump then added in his own voice: “He was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”
Hours later, Mr. Trump went after another predecessor, reposting a tweet from a pro-Trump website accusing former President Barack Obama of plotting against him. “Evidence has surfaced that indicates Barack Obama was the one running the Russian hoax,” said the original message retweeted by the president.
Mr. Bush’s video message was part of a series of videos aired online as part of a 24-hour live-streamed project, “The Call to Unite,” that also featured Oprah Winfrey, Tim Shriver, Julia Roberts, Martin Luther King III, Sean Combs, Quincy Jones, Naomi Judd, Andrew Yang and others.
Mr. Bush’s office said he had no response to Mr. Trump’s message. “The video was a part of an event called ‘A Call to Unite,’” said Freddy Ford, the former president’s chief of staff. “I hope those covering it will resist the temptation to use it as a call to divide.” Mr. Obama’s office had no comment.