Donald Trump, in sharp defiance of his public health team, declared victory on Tuesday over the coronavirus even as the number of confirmed US cases and deaths continue to rise.

His administration’s goal is to “ease the guidelines and open things up to very large sections of our country as we near the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy,” the president said. “It’s been going a while time, but we win. We win.”

He has targeted Easter, 12 April, as his date for declaring the United States “open for business.” But, later in a shorter briefing than usual, a senior – and widely respected – member of his public health team said he had privately urged his boss to remain “flexible” as Mr Trump acknowledged his goal is not based on medical science or data about the virus outbreak. Senior congressional Democrats and experts panned his plans and called on him to listen to scientific experts, although the always-defiant president again and again flashed his penchant to follow his own instincts as he makes a major gamble about his re-election chances.

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Should his declaration of victory and plan to reopen at least part of the country pan out, he will be able to take Air Force One to campaign rallies in key swing states and say his hunches defeated a pandemic, making him uniquely suited for a second term. But should the outbreak become more widespread, as experts warn, his judgement will be severely damaged in a manner that could prove a death knell among the key voting blocs that are expected to decide the 2020 election.

The “we win” moment in the White House briefing room conjured memories of then-President George W Bush‘s premature declaration of victory in the 2003 Iraq conflict, when he addressed the nation from a US Navy ship with a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished“ behind him. 

During his daily White House Covid-19 briefing, Mr Trump said his coronavirus task force is crafting a “sophisticated plan” to guide the eventual reopening of the economy.

Yet, he and his team also appeared to hedge on the timing and scope of an Easter grand reopening quite a bit.

“Our decision will be based on hard facts … for the opening,” he said, claiming his final decision will be made based on the “health” of the American people.

He later said “maybe we’ll do sections of the country,” saying he and his team are still “discussing” a final plan. And he acknowledged his Easter goal is based on the holiday being a “beautiful time” rather than any scientific data or medical advice. He would not say the two doctors behind him had said an Easter reopening is medically sound. The president said he will be taking advice from them, but he made clear the final decision would be his own.

Mr Fauci said Mr Trump’s advisers had just told him in the Oval Office to remain “flexible” when it comes to the Easter target. “The country is a big country and there are areas of the country … that we need to know more about the entrants there,” he said. “If you find over a period of time there are areas that are very different than other parts of the country,” saying the administration would be “looking at the data” to decide whether certain parts of the country could be reopened.

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But Mr Trump pointed to areas of the “Farm Belt” and states “out west.” Notably, those places have far less dense populations than New York City and its surrounding area.

The president claimed a “very, very powerful victory” over the virus as he praised Deborah Birx, a State Department official, for being perhaps the best infectious disease expert in the world – as his top infectious disease official, the widely popular Anthony Fauci, making his briefing room return, looked on behind him.

Meantime, Ms Birx called on anyone who has travelled from New York to other locations recently should self-isolate for 14 days.

“We are focused on New York,” said vice president Mike Pence, citing that area’s high rate of infection. “We have to deal with the New York metropolitan area as a high-risk area.”

The president declared the US is seeing a “light at the end of a tunnel”, but one expert said his Easter goal really is about salvaging what typically is a big day at his various American resorts and golf clubs.

“What POTUS means is ‘Trump-branded properties do very brisk business for Easter lunch and I want to take advantage of that,‘” tweeted Aki Peritz of American University.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi sharply pushed back on Mr Trump’s contention that all or some of the country could be back to normal in just a few weeks.

“Well there doesn’t have to be a contradiction there. Our economy will thrive when our people are well and able to go back to work in groups and collaborate on the enthusiasms that they have in their entrepreneurial spirits or in the workplace that they thrive, and our children can go back to school,” the California Democrat told CNN. ”But central to all of that is stopping the spread of … the coronavirus.”

“We have the best minds in the country, 24/7, all hands on deck trying to find a path here. And that is what will be the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ms Pelosi said. “What the president is suggesting is that that light at the end of the tunnel could be a train coming at us if people are out and about in a way that spreads the disease further.”

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