They’re resuming now for two reasons: The virus has resurged, and Trump’s job approval rating has dropped even further. As is so often the case in politics, the interests of the nation and the president coincide, and so now he must try to show the nation and the world that the United States can get the virus under control. Trump can only do that, however, if this series reboot is much different from the last go-round.
He can start by wearing a mask to every briefing. He doesn’t need to talk using one. It’s hard to hear someone wearing a mask, and he won’t be within six feet of anyone when he’s at the lectern anyway. But a picture tells a thousand words, and a daily image of the president entering and leaving the briefing room wearing a face mask sends the message that Trump is taking the crisis seriously.
Each day also needs to focus on a concrete action the federal government is taking to reduce the lethality or to control the spread of the virus. They can’t focus on happy talk about a vaccine that may or may not come this year. People are scared, and they want action. Most importantly, they want to know that their leader understands their fears and values their desire to stay safe as his highest priority. That means taking action — sending troops to construct emergency hospitals in regions without spare intensive-care beds, sending ventilators or really anything concrete that will help people today.
He also needs to stop the regular cat-and-mouse games he and reporters play with one another. He needs to curb his instinct that media dust-ups are good for him politically. Maybe they are in normal times, but these are not normal times. He should politely refuse to answer any non-virus-related questions and keep his answers to relevant questions short. There are only 14 reporters present at every news conference; he should ensure that everyone gets one and only one question, and perhaps call on them in alphabetical order to provide a clear structure. Once these new ground rules are set, any reporter who tries to veer off course is the person who isn’t playing by the rules, and viewers never like someone who’s using valuable time for purely personal agendas.
“Calm” and “brevity” should be his watchwords. Trump often gets heated in his responses to questions, and that’s when the word salads begin. He needs to portray calmness and stability, and short, clear, polite answers do that. His opening statements also need to be scripted and short. Trump seems to think that the more he talks, the better, but at this moment, less is more.
Finally, no other official should ever join him, either at the briefing to provide follow-up answers or as a presenter. The last briefings’ pattern of presenting a parade of personalities at the podium was well-intentioned but also conveyed a sense of disorder when Americans wanted reassurance. If a reporter asks a detailed question and the president can’t answer with quick confidence, he should admit he doesn’t have that level of knowledge and ask the reporter to submit it to the appropriate person. Trump might fear this will show he’s not leading, but any leader of a large organization knows that sometimes delegating is leading.
No one should expect this set of briefings to accomplish miracles, either for Trump or for a federal government that still hasn’t settled on a clear and steady role in fighting the pandemic. But if the briefings actually represent a change in attitude and action, then perhaps they can do something no one expects: change the trajectories for the virus and Trump’s reelection chances.