These stage-managed afternoon performances are not really briefings at all. Sometimes, they are campaign rallies designed to stoke passion among Trump’s loyal base. Sometimes they are blame-shifting exercises in which he points the fingers at governors, Democrats, China, the World Health Organization — even the previous administration — for not leaving behind a test for a disease that did not infect humans until nearly three years after Barack Obama left office.
Increasingly, these unhinged sessions primarily serve as opportunities for Trump to complain bitterly about how nobody appreciates what a “perfect” job he and his administration have done in handling the pandemic. Since this narrative is objectively false, Trump has to bluster and fantasize to try to make it sound true, if only to himself.
The president uses the assembled White House correspondents as foils. Protocol and decency require them to treat him with respect, addressing him as “Mr. President” and refraining from, say, calling him a liar to his face. By contrast, Trump often berates them for asking perfectly appropriate questions.
On Sunday, when CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond asked why Trump was highlighting praise for his administration on a day the U.S. death toll from covid-19 soared past 40,000, Trump snapped at Diamond that “you don’t have the brains you were born with.” The president has seemed to go out of his way to target women of color among the press corps, frequently snarling at Yamiche Alcindor of “PBS NewsHour” and telling reporter Weijia Jiang of CBS News to “keep your voice down.”
Trump may believe these daily appearances are good politics, but it’s unclear why. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed that just 36 percent of respondents generally trust what Trump says about the novel coronavirus, as opposed to 66 percent who trust the governors of their states and 60 percent who believe Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
From the point of view of former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, an old political maxim might seem to apply: Never interfere with your opponent when he is in the process of destroying himself. Trump can never resist the spotlight, however harsh and unsparing it might be — and no matter how little he understands the material.
Whatever he’s doing to his political standing, though, Trump is clearly making the task of the nation’s governors and public health officials much more difficult. He has begun lobbying for restarting the economy by May 1 or even earlier, despite warnings from Fauci and other scientists that reopening too soon would risk inviting a new wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths that likely would mean yet another shutdown.
The president’s impatience has helped inspire demonstrations at statehouses around the country calling for stay-at-home orders to be lifted. Anyone who doubts there is a cause-and-effect relationship should note the prevalence of MAGA hats and pro-Trump signs among the protesters.
So what should the media do? I’ve always believed the convention that what the president of the United States says qualifies as news. But with Trump, even the most fundamental beliefs must be reexamined.
In print, we need to find ways not to amplify Trump’s lies in the process of refuting them. Perhaps that means providing the accurate, corrective information before quoting the lie, even in headlines. That is difficult, but not impossible.
Broadcast media should consider either taping the briefings and airing only newsworthy excerpts, or providing some means of fact-checking Trump’s statements in real time. Split the screen, if necessary. Cut away altogether when things go completely off the rails.
Should the White House correspondents walk out en masse? No, because covering the president is their job. Making a pact to follow up on questions Trump refuses to answer truthfully won’t work: Trump can back up a lie with another lie, or just walk away.
But the correspondents do have another option: When Trump finishes a fact-free opening harangue, they should direct their questions to Fauci and the other experts — not to the president. Reporters are there to seek reliable information on behalf of the public, not to play Trump’s self-serving game.