The coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for President Donald Trump to hold the political rallies he loves so much. But he’s found a substitute of sorts with daily White House coronavirus briefings that have quickly descended into farce.
There were more than 500 coronavirus deaths in the United States on Monday alone — the most of any single day yet. You wouldn’t know that from watching Trump’s briefing, however. Viewers were instead treated to a variety show featuring absurdly over-the-top deification of the president, quips about his hair, infomercials for numerous private companies, the promotion of unproven drugs, and verbal sparring sessions with reporters.
The briefing came a day after Trump posted unsettling tweets bragging about the TV ratings of the press conferences, which are only necessary because his government bungled its preparations for a deadly pandemic. While Trump once used the briefings to announce new policies, recently they have featured more misinformation and aggrandizement than news. Monday’s was the least newsworthy conference to date, and will only bolster growing arguments that cable networks (and the public at large) would be best served to ignore them.
“God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on”
While a number of state governors plead with the Trump administration to do more to provide them with ventilators and other needed medical gear on a large scale, Trump has used the White House briefings to showcase executives from private companies who are stepping in to fill the role the federal government would usually take in responding to a public health crisis. On Monday, it was MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s turn to receive the informercial treatment.
Lindell is a Fox News fixture and staunch Trump backer. In fact, he reportedly told associates that Trump is pushing him to run for governor in Minnesota. To his credit, as the coronavirus crisis has worsened, Lindell’s company has pivoted from pillows to making masks for health care workers. That’s praiseworthy, and ostensibly the reason Trump brought him to the White House. What was troubling, however, was Lindell’s portrayal of the Trump presidency in biblical terms.
“God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” Lindell said at the end of his remarks. “God had been taken out of our schools and lives, a nation had turned its back on God. I encourage you to use this time at home to get back in the word. Read our Bible.”
“I did not know he was going to do that, but he’s a friend of mine and I appreciate it,” Trump replied.
The My Pillow guy Mike Lindell says this: "God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on. God had been taken out of our schools & lives, a nation had turned its back on God. I encourage you to use this time at home to get back in the word. Read our Bible" pic.twitter.com/tRdlubE08u— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 30, 2020
Lindell’s comments came at the end of the pre-questions portion of the briefing. Instead of leveling with the American people about the coronavirus, Trump spoke at length about unproven remedies (“Bayer has donated one million doses of the chloroquine”), promoted new coronavirus tests in a QVC-like manner, and complimented himself on his hair’s performance in the Rose Garden wind (“My hair is blowing around. And it is mine”).
"My hair is blowing around. And it is mine. The one thing you cannot get away with. It is a problem if you are president" -- Trump pic.twitter.com/ZifUxnquYQ— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 30, 2020
Things didn’t get any less farcical when it came time for Trump to take questions.
“I know South Korea better than anybody”
Among the first questions Trump took was one from the ultra-sycophantic One America News Network (OAN). As they’ve done in previous briefings, on Monday an OAN staffer served up a loaded question, in this case asking Trump to talk about a false equivalency she drew between coronavirus deaths and abortions. Trump, to his credit, didn’t take the bait and basically dodged the question.
One of the more informative moments of the briefing came a short time later, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, took the mic to correct the record about the hope Trump expressed that the coronavirus perhaps might not flare up again in the fall, even if the outbreak we’re currently dealing with is brought under control before then.
“In fact, I would anticipate that that would actually happen, because of the degree of transmissibility,” Fauci said, immediately after Trump said, “I hope it doesn’t happen.”
Here's Dr Fauci immediately pouring cold water on Trump's hope that the coronavirus won't strike again in the fall pic.twitter.com/oyxG6l6QQN— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 30, 2020
The event wound down with Trump sparring with two of his longtime media foes — Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour and Jim Acosta of CNN. Acosta asked Trump what his message is to people who are upset about the fact he spent weeks downplaying the coronavirus instead of preparing for it, but Trump dismissed the question and then went on the attack.
“It’s people like you and CNN that say things like that, that, uh, it’s why people just don’t want to listen to CNN anymore,” Trump said. “You could ask a normal question ... I don’t want panic in the country. I could cause panic much better than even you. I would make you look like a minor league player. But you know what, I don’t want to do that.”
Trump concluded, “Instead of asking a nasty, snarky question like that, you should ask a real question, and other than that I’m going to go to somebody else.”
.@Acosta: What do you say to those who are upset you spent weeks downplaying the coronavirus?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 30, 2020
TRUMP: "If you look at those individual statements, they're all true. 'Stay calm, it will go away' ... it will go away ... [that's] why people just don't want to listen to CNN anymore" pic.twitter.com/YhAjMMW6Sg
(On Tuesday morning, Trump retweeted a video of his exchange with Acosta posted by one of his campaign staffers along with the caption, “BOOM ... Trump obliterates CNN.”)
After taking a question asking him to explain the accusations he made the day before about nurses and New York officials misappropriating medical gear — “I expressed what was told to me by a tremendous power in the business,” Trump said, citing an unnamed source despite the fact that he’s attacked reports for citing unnamed sources as recently as Saturday — the president called on Alcindor.
Alcindor asked Trump a straightforward, fair question about coronavirus testing.
“You said several times that the United States has ramped up testing, but the United States is still not testing per capita as many people as other countries like South Korea,” Alcindor said. “Why is that?”
Instead of answering it, however, Trump lied — “It’s very much on par,” he claimed, falsely — and then for the second-straight day lectured Alcindor about how she should do her job.
“I know South Korea better than anybody,” Trump said. “Do you know how many people are in Seoul? Do you know how big the city of Seoul is? 38 million people. That’s bigger than anything we have.”
Trump’s claim was way off. The population of Seoul is about 10 million.
Here's Trump lecturing Yamiche that "38 million people" live in Seoul, South Korea. The actual population of Seoul is 9.8 million. pic.twitter.com/Lu1jY3sJ9J— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 30, 2020
Trump went on to admonish Alcindor that “you should be saying congratulations instead of asking a really snarky question,” before abruptly ending the briefing.
These all-style, no-substance briefings are especially off-key amid a deadly pandemic
While officials like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz provide daily coronavirus briefings that are filled with facts and announcements of significance to their constituents, Trump’s have devolved into spectacle. It appears cable networks are belatedly waking up to this — CNN cut away from Trump’s latest briefing as soon as Lindell took the stage.
As my colleague Matthew Yglesias has argued, to the extent they’re trying to inform viewers about the coronavirus instead of just entertaining them, cable networks should probably stop broadcasting them live, and instead highlight the newsworthy parts later. On days like Monday, that would mean more or less ignoring them altogether.
Trump craves attention, and with political rallies off the table for the foreseeable future, the briefings provide his daily fix. They provide him with some of his largest TV audiences to date — a fact not hugely surprising given public interest in a pandemic that has put their families at risk, but one that Trump has bragged about nonetheless.
But the briefings have become increasingly rally-like, with wild claims and guest appearances. And rarely has the content of the Trump Show reflected a president as out of touch with reality as it did on Monday.
Listen to Today, Explained
Part rally, part media-bashing, part critical updates on the coronavirus crisis. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias says President Trump’s daily press briefings are muddying the message.