Touting an anti-narcotics-trafficking initiative, that’s what. Or, in Trump’s words, to "protect the American people from the deadly scourge of illegal narcotics.” Attempting to connect this announcement to the news of the day, the president stressed the imperative of stopping drug cartels from exploiting the coronavirus "to threaten American lives.”
The military/national security officials took turns at the lectern.
Cable networks, meanwhile, were caught off-guard. Cutting away from the narcotics discussion, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, "That was an important statement on enhanced counternarcotics operations that the Department of Defense, the U.S. military is about to engage in, but it’s not directly related clearly to what’s going on as far as the coronavirus pandemic is concerned. We’ll continue to monitor that briefing.” Over at MSNBC, Chuck Todd did the same thing, calling it "an interesting decision by the president to lead the task force with this.”
Log another reason that cable networks shouldn’t leave these briefings on autopilot. When Trump is leading the show, stunts and promotional ploys are inevitable. Does anyone remember when Trump, in September 2016, snookered the media into covering an infomercial for his D.C. hotel?
During Tuesday’s briefing, Trump held forth on the difference between a “good ventilator and a not-so-good ventilator,” demanding kudos for instituting travel restrictions against China, complaining about being “called names” by morning-show hosts for those travel curbs, and attacking “Internet companies that deliver” and take advantage of the U.S. Postal Service. And there was this, too:
Those claims constitute a fine cross-section of Trump’s prodigious output in briefings — a mix of folksy blather, contradiction and a bunch of statements that demand fact-checking.
The surplus of Trump statements has flooded the fact-checkers. Angie Drobnic Holan, editor in chief of PolitiFact, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that her group has created a brand-new staff rotation to monitor the briefings. Even so, PolitiFact, with 11 journalists on staff, isn’t endeavoring to check every statement tossed out by the president in these lengthy sessions. (The transcript from Trump’s April 3 briefing runs in the neighborhood of 14,000 words, even though that particular session ran only 77 minutes. On March 31, he carried on for 131 minutes.) “If we did that, we wouldn’t be able to fact-check anything else,” says Holan, noting that governors, for instance, have tremendous impact on people’s day-to-day lives during the pandemic.
The Post’s fact-checking operation keeps a running tally of Trump’s false or misleading claims, a count that’s sure to undergo a coronavirus bump. “We’ve fallen a bit behind but are working hard to try to get it up to date and plan to publish an update within a week,” notes The Post’s Glenn Kessler in an email. “In some ways, not having to record statements from a campaign rally lessens our burden, since there are so many false or misleading claims made in those venues. But you still have to plow through nearly two hours of material so it requires a lot of concentration.”
The New York Times at first ran the briefings live on its website, assuming that they would brim with helpful and truthful information. “We stopped doing that because they were like campaign rallies,” says Elisabeth Bumiller, the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief. Best, instead, to comb through the transcripts for the good stuff. “The health experts often have interesting information, so we’re very interested in that, but the president himself often does not,” says Bumiller.
Bumiller’s colleagues don’t attend the briefings in person, both because of concern for their health and the sessions’ tendency to surface repetitive information. But they do watch and watch and watch. “We cover the president at all times in the day or night, but it’s just that these two-and-a-half-hour briefings are long and they’re every day,” says Bumiller, noting that her people have lives. “We have to recognize that when you cover the White House, you have to drop everything at a moment’s notice.”
In the early months of the Trump administration, the Erik Wemple Blog asked whether Trump might outlast the press corps by flooding them with news — news stemming from his caprice and dysfunction, mind you, but news nonetheless. Around that time, Trump’s Twitter habit essentially ended Saturday’s long run as the one day of the week when White House reporters could get a breather. Three years later, Trump has added another gear to this particular transmission: The coronavirus is a big story that becomes bottomless when you add in the president’s nightly antics in the White House briefing room.
The only response is to work harder. “Our White House and fact-checking teams have covered lengthy events, speeches and rallies by President Trump for years and the briefings are no different,” notes Steven Ginsberg, The Post’s national editor.
Small adjustments are sometimes necessary, too. ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl sits through the briefings, occasionally absorbing the churlish attacks of the president. He tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he uses a watch that reminds him to get up and move around every so often. “I have to keep ignoring the notifications because I’ve been sitting there so long,” he says of his sedentary briefing-room existence.