The frustration was visible on Chris Wallace’s face when he told his “Fox News Sunday” viewers that the only person he could get to talk about the status of President Trump’s treatment for the novel coronavirus was a guy paid primarily to defend the president on television: Trump campaign senior adviser Steve Cortes.
“Steve, respectfully, I would like to be asking this of a White House official, but they’re not putting anyone out this morning for us to question, so I’ve got to ask you,” Wallace said. “How is the president doing?”
In TV appearances Sunday and Monday, Trump campaign surrogates served double duty as cheerleaders for the president and official communicators of his closely guarded health condition, before Trump’s dramatic exit from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, frustrating network anchors who wanted officials who were less political.
Before appearing on TV as a campaign talking head, Cortes was best known for his role as a so-called pro-Trump contributor on CNN, paid to come on the air and defend the president on the issue of the day. Cortes told Wallace on Sunday that Trump “is a fighter in every sense of the word” and “very, very shortly, he is going to be back in the game throwing 95 mph fastballs.”
The other Trump campaign official on double duty Sunday was Jason Miller, who also served as a pro-Trump contributor on CNN, but left the network in September 2018 amid legal allegations made by a former Trump campaign staffer with whom he fathered a child.
Before interviewing Miller on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd told viewers, “We should note: The White House would not provide a doctor or senior White House official to offer an update on President Trump’s condition. So, Jason, I hope you are prepared to do that.”
During interviews on NBC, ABC and CNN, Miller said he could not answer specific questions because he was “not part of the White House’s medical unit,” though he sought to convey proximity to the situation by mentioning that he had spoken with the president.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who hosts “State of the Union” on Sunday mornings, said his show requested an administration official and was instead offered a campaign surrogate. “We asked for the vice president or the chief of staff or the communications director or the president’s physician,” he told viewers. “We asked for members of the Coronavirus Task Force, including Health Secretary [Alex] Azar, Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, or Dr. [Deborah] Birx, or the surgeon general, or the director of the NIH, or the CDC director, or the top vaccine adviser, or Jared Kushner, or the national security adviser. The White House declined to provide any of them, any of them, to update you on the president’s condition. Instead, they referred us to the president’s political campaign. We told them we would be happy to take the campaign manager. But, unfortunately, he, too, is now battling the coronavirus.” No campaign surrogate appeared on his show.
Bookers for all the broadcast and cable news networks work closely with the White House’s television liaison, lodging regular requests for news-making interviews with administration officials. “We get ‘nos’ frequently,” said an executive producer for a broadcast network, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the White House booking relationship.
Despite multiple requests, there have been no government doctors or administration officials on NBC News or MSNBC since the president’s diagnosis, said a network official who was not authorized to publicly discuss the situation.
This weekend, “Face the Nation,” CBS News’s Sunday morning show, was the only network able to swing a member of the administration in national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien. “He’s doing very well,” O’Brien told moderator Margaret Brennan. “He’s firmly in command of the government of the country.”
Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine took over Monday. In an interview on Fox News, she seemed to suggest that contracting covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, would give the president an electoral advantage over his Democratic competitor, former vice president Joe Biden.
“Listen,” she said. “He has experience as commander in chief. He has experience as a businessman. He has experience, now, fighting the coronavirus as an individual. Those firsthand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.”