“I think a lot of the media actually has been very fair,” Trump said at that point. “I think people are pulling together on this. I really think the media has been very fair.”
This was not his position on Thursday. Over the course of the long briefing, Trump repeatedly impugned media coverage and disparaged the reporters who had been covering the White House response.
Trump is always looking for an enemy to present to his base of supporters. In recent days, amid criticism of his handling of the virus, Trump had seemed to settle on China as the focus of his blame. At Thursday’s briefing, though, he redirected that effort to mainstream news outlets, disparaging them far more than the Chinese government.
Given efforts to limit the spread of the virus by person-to-person contact, the number of reporters in the small briefing center at the White House had been reduced. Trump noted the smaller attendance with appreciation at the outset of the briefing.
“I have to say,” he said, “I think with social distancing that the media has been much nicer. I don’t know what it is. All these empty, these in-between chairs. We probably shouldn’t have anybody sitting behind you, either. I should probably go back, but I love it. It’s so much nicer.”
That was tame.
“You did say a few days ago, though, that you did have a sense that this was a pandemic that was coming,” a reporter asked at one point. “So why was the United States not prepared with more testing and supplies?”
“We were very prepared,” Trump insisted. “The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media. The media has not treated it fairly.” He claimed that the reporter’s network had said he was “racist” for calling for limits on travel from China during that country’s initial outbreak of the virus.
“So when you say that I wasn’t prepared, I was the first one to do the ban,” Trump said. “Now other countries are following what I did. But the media doesn’t acknowledge that. They know it’s true. They know it’s true. But they don’t want to write about it.”
Here’s an article explaining how Trump came to call for those limits.
More broadly, he expressed frustration about the idea that sufficient supplies were lacking.
“You don’t know what we’ve done,” he said. “… You don’t know what’s been ordered, what’s not been ordered. I can only tell you — I can only tell you that, as an example, masks. Nobody ever heard of the number of masks that’s been ordered. They’re being made now, and many are available now. But people, I think, in the media probably don’t know that.”
The Post has spoken with medical experts who have expressed repeated concern about the unavailability of protective gear. The New York Times noted that doctors are requesting gear over social media. Vice President Pence even expressed appreciation during the hearing for construction companies stepping forward and donating masks that could be used — the sort of private-sector support that would seem not to be necessary were the government prepared. Ordering masks now is important — but ordering them a month ago, as the threat to the country was becoming more obvious, would have been more useful.
Trump’s frustration with the media came out in often unexpected moments. He explained that he could speak to the virus testing regimen because he’d been tested for it — but only because “you people were driving everybody crazy” asking whether he’d been tested.
Asked about two members of Congress who have tested positive, he wondered whether they’d been observing “social distancing,” maintaining a safe distance from others. He then revisited the seating in the briefing room.
“You’re actually sitting too close,” he said. “You should really, we should probably get rid of about another 75, 80 percent of you. Have just two or three that I like in this room. I think that’s a great way of doing it. We just figured a new way of doing it.”
One of the reporters he likes, Chanel Rion of the sharply pro-Trump cable network One America News, asked a question a bit later. (“OAN. Very good,” Trump said when she began speaking. “Thank you very much. You treat me very nicely.”)
Rion, who partnered on several obsequious reports about Ukraine with Trump personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, first asked Trump whether he thought the expression “Chinese food” was racist. It was an obvious effort to bolster Trump’s recent focus on linking China to the virus and condemnation of his referring to it as a “Chinese virus.” Trump, predictably, did not think the term was racist.
“Major left-wing news media, even in this room, have teamed up with Chinese Communist Party narratives and they’re claiming you’re a racist for making these claims about Chinese virus,” she said. “Is it alarming that major media players, just to oppose you, are consistently siding with foreign-state propaganda, Islamic radicals, and Latin gangs and cartels — and they work right here at the White House with direct access to you and your team?”
This question, regurgitating common rhetoric from conservative social media and repackaging it in a truly bizarre way, was odd enough that even Trump mostly ignored it. (How does one “team up” with a “narrative”?) He did use it, though, to tee off on media coverage that annoyed him.
“It amazes me when I read the things that I read,” he said. "It amazes me when I read the Wall Street Journal, which is always so negative. It amazes me when I read— the New York Times is not even— I barely read it. You know, we don’t distribute it in the White House anymore, and the same thing with The Washington Post.
“Because you see, I know the truth,” he continued. “And people out there in the world, they really don’t know the truth. They don’t know what it is. They use different slogans and different concepts for me almost every week trying to catch something. Last week, it was, oh, chaos. You see me, there’s no chaos. No chaos. I’m the one telling everybody to be calm. There’s no chaos at the White House. We have unbelievable professionals. It’s really — I mean, I think I came up with the term, I hope I came up with the term, but it is fake news. It’s more than fake news, it’s corrupt news.”
He complained generally about not being called by news outlets writing stories, focusing on one Wall Street Journal article in particular (which may have been the spur for the day’s frustration with the media overall). By way of full disclosure, he went on to say that The Post had been “going wild lately” and that the newspaper is very dishonest.
“This administration has done a great job, but the press is very dishonest,” he concluded.
Rion jumped in again.
“More than dishonest, they’re siding with state propaganda,” she said without any apparent irony.
“I think they do,” Trump replied. “They are siding with China. They are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing. They’re siding with many others; China is the least of it. So why are they doing this? You’ll have to ask them. But if we had an honest media in this country, our country would be an even greater place.”
With that question from Rion, who recently promoted a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in a lab in the United States — a claim boosted by the Chinese state — Trump was done taking questions from news outlets for the day. Should the White House trim the number of reporters allowed to ask questions of the president, it’s safe to say that the One America News Network or Rion would still earn an invitation.