The daily press briefing at the White House, in the time of covid-19, features a rotating cast of characters and set pieces: illegible charts and dispassionate doctors, pushy reporters and bizarre special guests. The star, even when he’s not in frame, is a president who has pulled focus from his own coronavirus task force.
“It’s not about me,” Trump said during Sunday’s briefing, for which he was at the microphone for all but 13 of its 90 minutes. “Nothing’s about me.”
America has better places to be but nowhere else to go. Theaters are closed, sports are iced, the news has tunnel vision, and Donald Trump has a captive audience. TV viewership for these briefings has sometimes exceeded 10 million. C-SPAN carries it from start to finish. Cable-news channels serve up large chunks of it, then chew on the leftovers into the night. Twitter froths with disbelief. People have always tuned in to the Trump show for the spectacle, but now, at a time of profound crisis and fear, they show up for their families and their own lives, hungry for information.
“Trump built this massive audience because we might all die,” says Ryan Lizza, Politico’s chief Washington correspondent. “And now he must think, ‘I can do all kinds of s--- up here, and nobody can do anything about it.’ ”
All kinds of what? All kinds of everything. The briefing is also a pity party, a patriotic pep talk, a media scrum, a tantrum, a sermon, a mood ring, an infomercial, an airing of grievances, a rally without ralliers, a wrestling match without chokeholds, a glimpse of an alternate reality, a hard look at actual reality, and a jargon-filled lecture on epidemiology. A grouch might call it a dumpster-fireside chat. A scholar might say it defies categorization.
“This is an unprecedented blending of genres,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who has studied types of political discourse for decades. “Pretend you just walked in and we were a foreign country, and you looked at this.”
This: The inventor of a foam pillow called “Giza Elegance” was invited to the microphone March 30 and proclaimed that God’s grace allowed Trump’s election.
This: Trump, while talking about projected fatality models on April 3, implied that the only type of model he’s ever dealt with is the female kind.
This: Trump tried to bigfoot questions from CBS News White House correspondent Paula Reid on April 13 by calling her “disgraceful” and “a fake.”
Ideally, during an emergency, the media and the president would respect one another’s basic integrity so that lifesaving information could be conveyed and obtained. This is happening in bits, but overall this daily news conf —
“I wouldn’t call it a press conference,” says Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
What would she call it?
Jamieson pauses, and then: “I don’t have a good name for it.”
Those who’ve been there in person don’t have a name for it either, but many use the same word.
“It was all very surreal,” says Mike Lindell, the pillow guy, of his moment in the Rose Garden.
“It’s surreal,” says Brian Karem, senior White House correspondent for Playboy, who last week was dismissed as a “loudmouth” by Trump. “It shouldn’t be accepted as normal.”
“Surreal,” agrees Asawin Suebsaeng, White House reporter for the Daily Beast. “It doesn’t feel like the real world when it’s happening.”
The president has been repeating a different word: “tremendous.” He used it 63 times over the course of last week’s briefings. “We have a tremendous numbers of viewers,” Trump said during Saturday’s briefing. “We’ve done a fantastic job. We’re the talk of other nations.”
At one of the first coronavirus briefings, on Feb. 26, the president said that the country’s 15 cases of infection would soon be zero, given the “pretty good job we’ve done.” As of Sunday, the positive tests totaled 749,203.
“He’s completely unprepared for this crisis, but [the media narrative] seems like something he can control,” says Tim Miller, an anti-Trump Republican and former spokesman for Jeb Bush. “He’s pulling from his past as a pitchman for shady products and his job as a reality-show host — his tone unchanged despite the 2,000 people that are dying each day.”
The president has used the briefings to cast himself as an Army general, leading a “military operation” in a “medical war” to “defeat the invisible enemy” that is “brilliant” and “genius” and “very smart.” He has claimed “total authority” while saying, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” He suggested Americans wear masks outside while noting, “I don’t think I am going to be doing it.” He’s warned the country to buckle down for truly difficult weeks, and suggested we are through the worst of it. He contradicts himself within a matter of minutes and can claim victory no matter which way things go. More than anything else, this is the Trump Doctrine.
“These briefings show his role as a leader right now,” says Mercedes Schlapp, former White House director of strategic communications, and now a strategist for Trump’s reelection campaign. “He’s so honed in and focused on what we need to be doing.”
Trump, at the April 7 briefing, as the death toll topped 12,000: “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country.”
Trump on Tuesday, as deaths hit 25,000: “I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old.”
Trump, on Saturday, as deaths passed 34,000: “Look, if I wasn’t elected, you would, right now, be at war with North Korea.”
“I have these grade school friends who can’t stop watching these briefings,” Schlapp continues. “They stop everything and watch when the president is on. It’s a phenomenon.”
Journalists have invoked “the 5’clock follies,” the derided news conferences conducted by the U.S. military in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton’s press secretary from 1998 to 2000, views the briefings as free air time for Trump’s reelection campaign. It may be working, according to research by one Democratic strategist cited in the Atlantic last week: Trump’s performance against Joe Biden improved 2 percentage points after voters were shown 90 seconds of a recent Trump briefing. Eric Bolling, the former Fox News host, likens the briefings to mixed-martial arts, with Trump and the media stuck in a televised cage match. Every evening, Bolling and his wife pour some wine and watch the briefing for the entertainment value.
They’re “more interesting than anything else on TV,” Bolling says. “With coronavirus keeping us in our homes, like it or not, Trump has the attention of America in the daily briefing. And he is smart enough to use it as much and often as he can.”
As the coronavirus moved from a marginal threat to a devastating pandemic that has killed about 40,000 Americans and blown a giant hole in the economy, Trump physically has moved from the sidelines of the briefing to center stage. Early on, he let the experts talk. Now, he seldom yields the mic. “He loves that image, of him in the middle and everyone gathered around,” said Jonathan Karl, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News.
Trump has been conducting this type of show for decades, especially in times of failure: when his businesses were going bankrupt, or his marriages were dissolving, or “The Apprentice” was sinking in viewership.
“Carnivalesque propaganda events,” says Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, who recently was a senior adviser to Mike Bloomberg’s short presidential campaign. In April 1990, when both the economy and his marriage were on the skids, Trump opened his Taj Mahal casino. It was built on $675 million in junk bonds, at a time when Atlantic City was soggy with debt, but Trump told Playboy it was going to be the “most spectacular hotel-casino anywhere in the world.” Seven months later, he blamed his financial woes on a nationwide “depression,” refused to admit that the Taj was bankrupt, and then signed a four-page document assenting to bankruptcy proceedings.
Fast forward 30 years:
“If we didn’t do what we did at the time, we could have lost more than 2 million people — I really believe that,” Trump said last week, while shifting any blame to China, governors, the media, the World Health Organization, and the Obama administration. “A lot of great decisions have been made.”
Before his presidency, “he was just a solo pilot and spun myths about what he was doing,” O’Brien says. “But at the end of the day, if you couldn’t afford to run a business, it doesn’t matter how much spin you have — it all came tumbling down. And that’s where we are in his presidency. He’s still trying to spin in these press briefings but the facts are so apparent, and easy to get, that he’s being reality-checked in real time.”
On Tuesday Karem, the correspondent for Playboy, tried pressing Trump about the lack of testing and about how his supporters are not social distancing.
“Quiet,” Trump said as Karem persisted. “Quiet. Quiet. . . . If you keep talking, I’ll leave.”
“It floored me,” Karem says now. “I’ve been told a lot of things in press conferences, but I’ve never been told that the question I’m asking had pissed them off so much they’d take their ball and go home. We’ve seen a devolution of the press’s interaction with the president, to the point where this president has effectively made us players in his reality show.”
Trump routinely touts the sacrifice and teamwork of American citizens and medical professionals — “The American people have done a hell of a job” — but often singles out one citizen in particular. “I did a ban, where I’m closing up the entire country,” Trump said Sunday to the press, and “you should say, ‘Thank you very much for good judgment.’ ”
“Every president wants to defend their legacy,” says Allison Prasch, assistant professor of rhetoric, politics and culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “But the way that Trump is portraying himself rhetorically demonstrates a self-obsession in ways that I think are unprecedented.”
The briefings, in a way, are longings: the president desires unqualified praise, his fans yearn for the free-associating emcee who used to hold court in arenas, viewers want new information and a way forward.
Saturday’s briefing had it all. Trump began, like he did on Feb. 26, by saying that the country is on the brink of “a win,” and that “we’re going to close it out.” Within the first minute he blamed the “fake news” for misrepresenting the death toll in China, then complained about inheriting “a completely broken system,” then expressed a desire for praise from the media, then interrupted coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx as she gave a more formal scientific presentation. He concluded the Q&A portion of the briefing with a long, error-laden harangue about world affairs, calling Vladimir Putin “a total gentleman,” saying he got a “nice note” recently from Kim Jong Un, and claiming falsely that President Barack Obama had left the country with no military ammunition and no ventilators.
“Seventy-five percent of the briefings are medical data — real information that the people need,” asserts a senior White House aide, who requested anonymity even though the president disparaged the media’s use of anonymous sources Saturday, adding: “We’ve been doing our best to keep it very fact-based.”
The president indeed uses the briefings to also communicate facts. For example, on Monday of last week, he said: “To the best of my knowledge, I’m the president of the United States.”