WASHINGTON — Standing in front of a Navy hospital ship, with a row of American flags arranged behind him, President Trump on Saturday expressed support for New York even as he announced he was considering a quarantine for the tristate region.
“We’re here for you,” Mr. Trump said, speaking from the naval station in Norfolk, Va., where he traveled to see off the Comfort as it deployed to New York, where it will help a state struggling to handle an influx of coronavirus patients by adding 1,000 hospital beds to a system in short supply.
Mr. Trump trumpeted the departure of the hospital ship, saying that it would play a “critical role” in freeing up capacity at area hospitals. In reality, however, the arrival of the Comfort will help the struggling state only on the margins. New York estimates it will need a total of 140,000 beds to treat patients who are ill with Covid-19, and it has about 53,000 beds during normal times.
“You have the unwavering support of the entire nation, the entire government and the entire American people,” Mr. Trump said, even as he weighed whether to close off the region in a move that Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York immediately described as unworkable while questioning whether it was even legally enforceable.
The 200-mile trip to the naval base was Mr. Trump’s first time leaving the White House in nine days, and his decision to turn the moment into a high-profile photo opportunity raised questions about safety and his use of government resources at a time when the administration’s own federal guidelines advise against most travel and gatherings of more than 10 people.
“We don’t need Donald Trump in Virginia doing a photo op,” Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor of Virginia, said in an interview. “We need respirators and we need masks, like every other state in the country. He ought to be staying in Washington, in his job. It’s a total waste of time.” Mr. McAuliffe said that a presidential visit to a naval base meant that officials who needed to be addressing a public health crisis had to instead “spend their time doing a Trump re-election photo op. He ought to stop the politicking and lead the nation.”
Mr. Trump delivered his speech in front of a small audience of about a dozen military officials, as well as a handful of White House aides who traveled with him. But the pared-down event was filled with pageantry. The president arrived to the tune of “Hail to the Chief.” He spoke behind a podium with a presidential seal, and when he was finished, he stood next to the Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, and saluted the ship as it pushed off from the pier.
On Friday, Mr. Trump defended his decision to see off the ship as a patriotic show of support. “I have spirit for the country,” the president said at a news conference. “I’m not going to be jumping around in a huddle.”
“It’s like a tiny trip,” he continued. “I think it’s a good thing when I go over there and I say thank you. We’ll be careful.”
As he departed the White House on Saturday afternoon under a light rain, Mr. Trump broached the prospect of a two-week quarantine of New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut. “I’d rather not do it, but we may need it,” he said. The president said he was considering restricting travel to and from those states “because they’re having problems down in Florida, a lot of New Yorkers going down,” but he did not offer any specifics on how that would work.
He offered little additional detail during his speech, except to say that any quarantine would “not apply to people such as truckers from outside the New York area who are making deliveries or simply transiting through.” He also noted that “it won’t affect trade in any way.”
Mr. Trump was accompanied on the trip to Norfolk by Mr. Esper, as well as his incoming chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, and Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, were also spotted in attendance at his speech. The trip was proposed, an official said, partly because the naval station is self-contained and would not require Mr. Trump to be in public areas, like a commercial airport. Vice President Mike Pence had previously visited the base when the Comfort was in port. Amid the pandemic, the ship’s departure for New York was internally seen at the White House as a reassuring moment for the president to highlight with a personal appearance.
Mr. Trump has been grounded at the White House since March 19, when he visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters. His typical weekend round of golf has been curtailed since the outbreak of the virus in the United States, as have all of his scheduled weekend trips to his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. He has grown increasingly restless confined to the White House complex, where he has watched the economic gains that were intended to serve as the heart of his re-election campaign evaporate.
Mr. Trump made it clear this week that the visit to the ship could draw publicity. “I’ll kiss it goodbye,” he said. “I suspect the media will be following.”
The 894-foot ship, which is expected to arrive on Monday in New York Harbor, was in port in Norfolk undergoing repairs when the Pentagon offered it to help in the response to the pandemic. The ship is expected to take on patients in New York with other illnesses to let hospitals focus on the large number of coronavirus cases, the president said. That is in part because emergency patients who are medically fragile need to be kept apart from wards where the coronavirus could be circulating. And keeping patients ill with the coronavirus off the ship is necessary because large, oceangoing vessels can easily act as incubators for infectious diseases. Military vessels, in particular, have virtually no windows on their lower decks and rely on enormous ventilation systems that might spread the virus.
Mr. Trump announced this week that the ship would arrive in New York weeks earlier than originally expected.
The Comfort is no stranger to New York. The ship was dispatched to Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It also served off the coast of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and was on hand for aid in 1994 during the rescue of Cuban and Haitian migrants. More recently, the ship was deployed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Donald G. McNeil Jr. contributed reporting from New York.