Even as the Trump administration slowly finds its footing in the war against Covid-19, one high-profile element of its response remains stubbornly awful: President Trump’s performance in the daily news briefings on the pandemic.
Early on, Mr. Trump discovered that he could use the briefings to satisfy his need for everything to be all about him. As the death toll rises, that imperative has not changed. Most nights, he comes before an uneasy public, typically for an hour or more, to spew a thick fog of self-congratulation, political attacks, misinformation and nonsense.
Since Mr. Trump took office, a debate has raged among the news media about how to cover a man-child apparently untethered from reality. But with a lethal pandemic on the prowl, the president’s insistence on grabbing center stage and deceiving the public isn’t merely endangering the metaphorical health of the Republic. It is risking the health — and lives — of millions of Americans. A better leader would curb his baser instincts in the face of this crisis. Since Mr. Trump is not wired that way, it falls to the media to serve the public interest by no longer airing his briefings live.
For those who have managed to avoid these nightly spectacles, it is hard to convey their tragic absurdity. Mr. Trump typically starts by reading a somber statement that he seems to have never seen before. Next come remarks from other administration officials or corporate executives involved in the relief effort, generally laden with praise for the president’s peerless leadership. Vice President Mike Pence is particularly gifted at this.
After the testimonials comes the Q. and A., which is where the president lets his id off the leash. His constant goal seems to be to stress that he is in no way responsible for this nightmare — including any glitches in his administration’s response. All failures he assigns to past administrations, Democrats, governors, the media and so on.
Some of Mr. Trump’s misleading claims are fairy tales about his perfect response to this crisis. On March 15, he reassured the public that his administration had “tremendous control over” the virus. (No.) On March 17, he claimed to have “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” (Really?)
Other fabrications are more specific. On April 1, he assured people that safeguards were in place for travelers. “They’re doing tests on airlines — very strong tests — for getting on, getting off. They’re doing tests on trains — getting on, getting off,” he said. (No.)
Testing is a particularly touchy issue. Mr. Trump has claimed that, starting out, his team was burdened by “old, obsolete” tests inherited from the Obama administration. (No.) In ducking a question about the United States’ rate of per capita testing, he asserted that Seoul, South Korea, has a population of 38 million. (Try less than 10 million.) He continues to deny reports of testing problems in hard-hit states.
At Monday’s briefing, two journalists asked about a new report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services indicating that many hospitals were still grappling with testing delays. Mr. Trump first dismissed anyone with the job of inspector general. “Did I hear the word ‘inspector general’? Really?” Suggesting the report was politically motivated, he demanded to know the official’s name (Christi Grimm), when she had been appointed (this January) and how long she had served in government. When told she had served in the inspector general’s office since 1999, he erupted as if he’d uncovered a coup.
“You’re a third-rate reporter, and what you just said is a disgrace!” he ranted at Jonathan Karl of ABC News, pronouncing, “You will never make it!”
The closest the president came to addressing the original question was to assert that testing isn’t really his problem: “We’re the federal government! We’re not supposed to stand on street corners testing!”
He then lectured Fox News’s Kristin Fisher for being so negative. “You should say, ‘Congratulations! Great job!’ Instead of being so horrid in the way you ask the question!”
Such scoldings are a staple of the briefings, with Mr. Trump denouncing inquiries he dislikes as “gotcha,” “nasty,” “threatening” or “snarky.” He tells reporters they should be “ashamed” for not taking a more positive approach — as if they were on hand to flatter.
Public officials critical of the administration are mocked as ungrateful whiners with “insatiable appetites.” At one briefing, Mr. Trump said he’d told the vice president not to call Washington State’s Jay Inslee or “the woman in Michigan,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” he said. He has made sneering reference to one Republican-in-name-only malcontent (presumably Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan); called Senator Chuck Schumer of New York “a disgrace”; and accused Illinois’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, of “always complaining.” He has also repeatedly claimed that New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo “had a chance to get 16,000 ventilators a few years ago, and they turned it down.” (No.)
Critics of the president may be appalled to witness such behavior. But those inclined to trust him — and to view the media as illegitimate — may well wind up believing his spin.
Mr. Trump basically acknowledged as much on Monday. The public is “starting to find out” what an amazing job we’re doing, he bragged. “One of the reasons I do these news conferences, because, if I didn’t, they would believe Fake News. And we can’t let them believe Fake News.”
The president has a captive audience, and he has no intention of missing an opportunity to preen. On March 29, he boasted on Twitter about the terrific TV ratings his briefings were enjoying.
If the cameras were taken away, perhaps Mr. Trump would worry less about putting on a show. Better still, perhaps he would leave the briefings to the officials who have useful information to impart. The daily briefings should be covered — consistently, aggressively and accurately. But coverage is not the same as running a live, raw feed of Mr. Trump disgorging whatever he feels in the moment. The events could continue to air on a public service channel, such as C-SPAN, to alleviate concerns about censorship or transparency.
In using his platform to mislead the public, the president is not serving any interest but his own. In facilitating this farce, neither is the media.