President Trump took to lecturing journalists in the White House on Friday. “It’s a very important profession you’re in,” said Trump to CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins.

He should be thanking that particular profession. Media organizations, after all, were covering the scary spread of coronavirus around the world at the very same time Trump, along with his buddies Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, were downplaying it. That was weeks ago.

Now, Trump has changed his tone, at least on the coronavirus. After weeks of insisting everything was fine, the president, on March 17, said, “I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Not included in the tone change was the media, which Trump has continued to bash. On Thursday, he fielded a question from a reporter with One America News Network premised on the notion that the media had taken sides with “foreign state propaganda, Islamic radicals, and Latin gangs and cartels.” Instead of challenging the question, Trump luxuriated in it.

Then came Friday’s briefing, during which the matter of hydroxychloroquine arose. It’s a drug that’s used to treat malaria, and scientists are investigating its possible use against covid-19. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the assembled reporters there wasn’t thorough scientific evidence that the treatment would work. Despite that caution, Trump came to the briefing lectern to declare, “I’ve seen things that are impressive,” striking an optimistic tone on the matter.

NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander — whom the president has attacked in showy fashion before — pressed Trump on Trump’s spin. “Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope and misrepresenting preparedness right now?”

During a coronavirus news conference on March 19, President Trump slammed the media, calling them “fake” and “corrupt." (The Washington Post)

At first, the president responded by mocking Alexander, then saying, “Such a lovely question. Look — it may work and it may not work. And I agree with the doctor, what he said. . . . I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling. I’m, you know, a smart guy.”

Then the smart guy proceeded to say dumb things. “I feel good about it — you’re gonna see, you’re gonna see soon enough. And we have certainly some very big samples of people. If you look at the people, there are a lot of people that are in big trouble. . . . Let’s see what happens. We have nothing to lose. You know the expression: ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ ”

Springboarding off of that point, Alexander cited the data on coronavirus: 200 dead, 14,000 sick in the United States. “Millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”

Trump’s response drilled right in at the only policy plank that has been consistent across more than three years in power: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. . . . I think that’s a very nasty question and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism and the same with NBC and Concast. I don’t call it Comcast, I call it ‘Concast.’ ”

Getting stronger with his delivery, Trump said, “That’s really bad reporting, you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows? I’ve been right a lot.”

At that point, Trump moved on to a question about the anti-viral drug from Fox News correspondent John Roberts. As he took the question, he found a moment to say to Alexander, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Good things ensued, as the White House press corps stood up for itself. ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega said, “I would like to follow up on Peter’s question here. Could you please issue, address Americans in this country who are scared right now? This is a very valid concern that people have.”

“My message to the American people is that there is a very low incidence of death. You understand that, and we’re going to come through this stronger than ever before,” Trump said. “Our country has been incredible, the way they pulled together.”

CNN’s Collins later asked the president this question: “You said the other day you see yourself as a wartime president right now, leading the country through this pandemic that we’re experiencing. Do you really think that going off on Peter, going off on a network, is appropriate when the country is going through something like this?”

Trump: “I do, because I think Peter is — I’ve dealt with Peter for a long time. And I think Peter is not a good journalist when it comes to fairness.”
Collins: “But he’s asking for your message to the country.”
Trump: “Oh, I think it’s a good message because I think the country has to understand that there is indeed, whether we like it or not, and some of the people in this room won’t like it, there’s a lot of really great news and great journalism and there’s a lot of fake news out there and I hear it all and I see it all and I understand it all.”

Coming together as a country, said Trump, “is much harder when we have dishonest journalists. It’s a very important profession that you’re in. It’s a profession that I think is incredible. I cherish it. But when people are dishonest, they truly do hurt our country.”

(Bolding added to highlight a lie wrapped in a message about the virtue of honesty.)

It’s tempting to suppose that the coronavirus could be the truth bomb that squelches the resonance of his “fake news” attacks. The ongoing crisis, after all, is sending Americans into unemployment, into self-quarantine, into profound worry about their futures. In that respect, it’s different from all the other policy topics — Russia, Ukraine, taxes, whatever — about which Trump has sprayed falsehoods without restraint. Now everyone can see for themselves how the president spins and lies his way through controversy. Alexander was right to ask Trump about how he would reassure concerned citizens. It just so happens that the president’s media-bashing obsession blinded him to the softball right in front of him.

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