On the one month anniversary of President Donald Trump proclaiming “I don’t take responsibility at all” for problems with the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the president on Monday melted down on national TV in one of his more memorable scenes during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing. He went on to claim his “authority is total” as president.
The impetus for Trump’s spiral is a New York Times report published on Saturday under the headline, “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.” The piece details how Trump “was warned about the potential for a pandemic ... [but] internal divisions, lack of planning and his faith in his own instincts led to a halting response.”
The piece is packed with documents, email threads, and on-and-off-the-record quotes from government officials — all of it backed up by Trump’s public statements at the time. Trump, however, rejected the idea that he could have known how bad the virus could get. Instead, on Monday, he attempted to blame the media.
Trump kicked things off by playing a compilation of TV news clips to the reporters in the briefing room meant to show that they were just as guilty as he was of downplaying the threat of the coronavirus in January, February, and March.
This is so bonkers. Trump is now playing TV clips back to the media to make it seem as though they were complicit in downplaying the coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/lmzc4QDnzK— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 13, 2020
The difference, however, is that Trump either ignored or wasn’t informed about White House memos written in January and February by his top advisers which explained that the coronavirus pandemic could kill millions of Americans. Not only that, but as late as February 28, Trump was claiming that the coronavirus would go away on its own, “like a miracle.”
Monday’s presser is an example of a larger goal for Trump. In recent weeks he’s attempted to rewrite history and paint himself in a better light. The compilation of video clips, which appeared similar to a campaign ad, was designed to make Trump look like he took coronavirus seriously from day one.
It was even accompanied by dramatic music. Watch for yourself:
Straight up North Korea-style propaganda going on right now in the White House briefing room. Get a load of the dramatic music. pic.twitter.com/p3KO6Ap2Sp— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 13, 2020
One of the first questions Trump received was from ABC’s Jon Karl, who remarked on the oddness of the video presentation.
“I’ve never seen a video like that played in this room,” Karl began. “It looked a bit like a campaign ad. Who produced that for you?”
“That was done by a group in the office,” Trump said, basically copping to using public resources for political purposes.
Trump ultimately refused to admit to making a single mistake during the coronavirus response, even though the United States has more total cases (over 582,000) and more deaths (more than 23,000) than any other country as of April 13.
Trump claims his “authority is total” even though it’s not
Beyond the bizarre video presentation, the other objective of Trump’s Monday briefing seemed to be to establish that he has absolute power to overrule Democratic state governors if they object to his plans to relax social distancing as soon as possible.
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at one point. “And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”
TRUMP: "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's gotta be. It's total." pic.twitter.com/zIuiBn1Mhw— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 13, 2020
Trump’s claim is false — governors have broad authority to close schools and businesses in their states. Unsurprisingly, when Trump pushed to articulate a legal justification for his position, he couldn’t come up with anything.
REPORTER: In regard to some of your tweets earlier today, what provision in the Constitution gives the president the power to open or close state economies?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 13, 2020
TRUMP: "Numerous -- numerous provisions. We can give you a legal brief if you want." (He never named one.) pic.twitter.com/nMzmbgEGYJ
But later, Vice President Mike Pence backed up Trump by saying “I support the president’s leadership under the national emergency declaration he signed.”
The irony is that while Trump claims to have dictatorial power, state governors keep calling on him to do more to provide them with the medical supplies they need to make sure each Covid patient can receive adequate medical care. Characteristically, Trump on Monday lied about this state of affairs by claiming “nobody is asking for ventilators.” (Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan — chair of the National Governors Association — said on Sunday’s installment of This Week that “to say that everybody is completely happy and we have everything we need is not quite accurate.”)
But conveying truthful information is not the point of these briefings. Instead, Trump’s objective is to reframe problems as the result of unfair media coverage and feed red meat to his base by sparring with reporters. On Monday, Trump attacked two female reporters — Paula Reid of CBS and Kaitlan Collins of CNN — when they dared to ask him questions about the government’s slow coronavirus response and his dictatorial statements, respectively.
“You are so disgraceful,” Trump admonished Reid at one point. “You know you’re a fake.”
Trump to @PaulaReidCBS, who asked him about the slow federal coronavirus response: "You are so disgraceful ... you know you're a fake." pic.twitter.com/6iKl6eyPX3— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 13, 2020
That part of these coronavirus briefings is clearly kayfabe — part of the Trump show. But amid a pandemic, the dictatorial theatrics are less amusing than ever.