“Most importantly,” he said, “we’re going to get back on to the reason we’re here, which is the success we’re having.”
Trump’s self-promotion, falsehoods and use of dodgy medical advice in these coronavirus briefings have led to a dialogue about whether networks should carry them live. And on Monday, he seemed to be daring all of them to stop, turning the whole thing into a spectacle of government-produced propaganda and even more personal score-settling and grievances.
Most notable was the video that was played. In it, media figures were shown early in the outbreak comparing the virus to the seasonal flu, as Trump has been criticized for doing much later on. Other clips played up the impact of his ban on travel from China, while yet more showed Trump personally making pronouncements about the steps he was taking — even at a time he was repeatedly and much more strongly downplaying the threat of the virus.
Trump was pressed on the production of the video, and he said it was made by White House officials.
Trump proceeded to downplay many complaints about the federal response, going so far as to say that there is no problem with the number of ventilators and other equipment available. The reality is significantly different, according to the states.
Trump also at one point maintained, “Everything we did was right.” When pressed on the claim, he declined to restate it but cast blame on governors for not stockpiling more ventilators.
It was soon noted that the video Trump had cued up left out a significant chunk of time in February — after the China travel ban and before Trump acknowledged the severity of the situation in mid-March — in which he didn’t take significant steps.
“What did you do in February?” CBS News’s Paula Reid asked.
Trump responded, “What do you do when you have no cases in the whole United States?” Reid rightly noted that there were actually cases in February, but Trump ignored it, refocusing on the lack of cases in mid-January. Pressed, he assured that the administration had in February done “a lot, and in fact we’ll give you a list."
Indeed, Trump repeatedly suggested a false choice between shutting down the economy in January and doing something lesser either then or in February, when health officials were reportedly asking for more significant warnings and social distancing. He suggested it would be foolish to shut down the economy when there were no or extremely few cases in January, while failing to enunciate any steps taken in February.
Trump also used the briefing to repeatedly suggest he had absolute power to deal with the situation, despite the Constitution and centuries of Supreme Court precedent. He said he had “ultimate authority,” adding: “The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful. The president of the United States calls the shots.” He said later that “when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
This is unquestionably false, but Vice President Pence backed him up later in the briefing.
“Make no mistake about it: In the long history of this country, the authority of the president of the United States during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary,” Pence said, using a synonym for “absolute.” “You can look back through times of war and other national emergencies. And as the president said, we’ll happily brief that.”
Another key moment in the briefing came at the outset, when Trump welcomed one of the lead doctors on the coronavirus task force, Anthony S. Fauci, to address an apparent rift between him and Trump. Trump on Sunday night had retweeted a tweet that included a call for Fauci to be fired, after Fauci said in an interview earlier in the day that certain recommendations made by health officials had not been heeded.
Fauci dealt with the subject obliquely, saying that when the officials “formally” asked for something amounting to a shutdown of large portions of the economy, Trump listened. In fact, though, the New York Times report that he was responding to Sunday did not say that the officials had asked for a shutdown, but that they had recommended in February that people be warned about the dangers of the virus and to encourage social distancing. Such guidelines weren’t actually made by Trump until mid-March.
Fauci, as he has done before, downplayed the idea that he and Trump were at odds — even as he has repeatedly said things that suggested as much. He was pressed on whether he was making the statement voluntarily, and he bristled.
“Everything I do is voluntarily,” he said. “Please don’t even imply that.”
Given the spectacle that surrounded him, though, it was hardly ridiculous to ask whether he was being compelled to toe a line that Trump had set. Everything else in these briefings has suggested a president who insists upon it — including the marshaling of government resources to provide a misleading narrative and a president who demands constant credit while ignoring the facts on the ground.