US President Donald Trump has abruptly ended a press briefing after being questioned over retweeting misinformation from a doctor who downplayed masks and suggested alien DNA was used in medical treatments.
Mr Trump resumed his daily news briefings on Tuesday (local time), using the stage to spruik advancements on vaccines and treatments for the virus.
His willingness to address the press comes after weeks of largely ignoring the pandemic and downplaying its severity.
The White House revived the briefings last week to demonstrate the Mr Trump’s leadership qualities.
But it didn’t take long for the new approach to falter.
When Mr Trump was pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins about his words of support for Houston doctor Stella Immanuel, he cut the briefing short and stormed out.
Dr Immanuel has been in the spotlight after appearing among a group of lab coat-wearing doctors who posted an online video on Monday (local time) to make a string of inaccurate assertions about the coronavirus that contradicted official government guidelines.
“You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” Dr Immanuel said.
Mr Trump tweeted a version of the video, which rapidly gained tens of thousands of views on Facebook and YouTube before both companies took it down for containing false public health information. The President’s son Donald Trump Jr had his Twitter account restricted by the company for 12 hours after calling the video a “must-watch”.
At the White House press conference, Mr Trump expressed puzzlement over why the “America’s Frontline Doctors” video had been removed, noting that Dr Immanuel claimed to be treating hundreds of COVID-19 patients with the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which he has long championed despite federal public health advice that it is ineffective against coronavirus.
“I don’t know why,” he told reporters.
“I think they’re very respected doctors. There was a woman who was spectacular in her statements about it and she’s had tremendous success with it.”
But Ms Collins, White House correspondent for CNN, challenged Mr Trump.
“The woman that you said was a ‘great doctor’ in that video that you retweeted last night said that masks don’t work and there is a cure for COVID-19, both of which health experts say is not true,” she said.
“She’s also made videos saying that doctors make medicine using DNA from aliens and that they’re trying to create a vaccine to make you immune from becoming religious.”
Mr Trump replied “maybe it’s the same [person], maybe it’s not, but I can tell you this. She was on air along with many other doctors.
“They were big fans of hydroxychloroquine and I thought she was very impressive in the sense that, from where she came – I don’t know which country she comes from – but she said that she’s had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients.
“And I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her.”
Ms Collins followed up but Mr Trump abruptly wound up the press conference, talking over her by saying, “OK, thank you very much, everybody,” and departing the briefing room.
It is understood Mr Trump has continued to consult a wide range of associates – including the CEO of a far-right television network – who are undermining the administration’s health experts and questioning their approach to the pandemic.
Monday provided a stark example of the competing voices that are at opposite ends of the health spectrum and influencing Mr Trump in his public pronouncements.
Dr Anthony Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others gathered in the Oval Office to update Mr Trump on the 30,000-person Phase 3 trial launched by Moderna.
Mr Trump later told reporters it was a “great meeting” and participants walked away believing he was sincere in his efforts to convey more leadership on the outbreak.
“We had a lot of our wonderful doctors and researchers with me,” Mr Trump said.
“I think the meeting went really well.”
While the meeting focused almost exclusively on the vaccine trial, and not on Mr Trump’s response to the virus more broadly, it seemed to participants like the President was engaged – unlike some previous meetings that became derailed with unrelated topics and complaints.
But as the day progressed, Mr Trump heard from several others who reinforced a different message than the one being offered by the administration’s health experts.
His trade adviser Peter Navarro – who recently published an op-ed in USA Today lambasting Dr Fauci without White House authorisation but was never formally reprimanded – travelled alongside Mr Trump to North Carolina, where Mr Trump broke with health experts by calling on governors to reopen.
“I really do believe a lot of the governors should be opening up states that they’re not opening,” Trump said, countering the advice being offered by Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx for states to rethink how they are lifting restrictions.
The same day, Mr Trump spoke with Robert Herring, the chief executive of far-right OANN, about an unproven anti-malarial that Mr Trump has long promoted and even took himself, despite a lack of clear evidence on its efficacy in preventing or treating COVID-19.
“Yesterday, I had a chance to talk to President Trump about hydroxychloroquine,” Mr Herring later wrote on Twitter.
“I gave him a list of doctors we have interviewed. I know he wants to help & put people back to work. Hope he talks to real doctors & not Dr. ‘Farci.’ ”
Mr Trump has cited OANN as a new favourite television channel after becoming frustrated with Fox News’ willingness to interview Democrats. The channel, which is not distributed widely, often peddles wild conspiracies and false information.
By Monday evening, Mr Trump had taken the hydroxychloroquine message public, retweeting a series of videos that were later removed by Twitter for containing false and misleading information about mask-wearing and the unproven drug.