Those 13 hours were the focus of a Washington Post examination of what Trump discussed as his team worked to slow the spread of the virus at the heart of the pandemic. What we found was stark: two hours spent attacking other people or groups, compared with less than five minutes offering his condolences to those affected by covid-19, the disease the virus causes.
Our analysis, though, didn’t fully capture one of the central aspects of Trump’s approach to the briefings. One thing that stands out as you review those 13 hours is how much of it is the same. Trump is often credited with being a master of branding, however fairly, but it’s clear that he has internalized the notion that reiterating an idea can help cement it in reality.
There were three broad categories into which a number of his repeated claims fit.
There were assertions meant to suggest that the current crisis could be worse, which included variations on the following claims:
- The death toll could have been 2.2 million without distancing measures, but because of Trump’s efforts it would instead be closer to 60,000 or fewer.
- New York officials requested 40,000 ventilators but needed far fewer, as Trump knew they would.
- The flu pandemic in 1917 killed far more people than the coronavirus.
It’s important to notice that each of these things is misleading or incorrect. Trump’s insistence that only 60,000 people will die of the virus in the United States will almost certainly soon be proved wrong. The reason New York didn’t need 40,000 ventilators isn’t that Trump handled the situation exceptionally well. The 1918 flu pandemic wasn’t rampant in 1917 — although it is a better point of reference for Trump than the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, which used to be his go-to measure of the deadliness of a virus.
In total, Trump spent more than half an hour discussing those three points over the course of 32 prepared remarks or answers to questions.
Another category: the virus was not Trump’s fault. This line of argument included claims such as:
- The virus is also in more than 180 other countries.
- He inherited a broken testing process and an empty stockpile of supplies.
- The economy was doing well until the virus hit.
Again, Trump is not being entirely straightforward. He was president for three years after inheriting that depleted stockpile, for example, but took no steps before the pandemic to replenish it. During the 13 hours, Trump again spent about half an hour reiterating these claims.
The third broad category was Trump’s effort to demonstrate how much he’d done. This was a focus of a lot of his prepared remarks, claims about the distribution of personal protective equipment and, again, how well he’d done at pivoting to ventilator production. It also included other specific claims, such as reminders about how Navy hospital ships were sent to Los Angeles and New York and how many beds had been set up by the government, including at the Javits Center in New York.
Trump spent about three hours focused on these points during the briefings, some of which overlapped with one another in particular answers. (The time totals cited here are based on timestamps from Factba.se’s annotated transcripts of the briefings.)
It’s worth noting that although Trump’s focus on what he’d done was obviously self-promotional, it wasn’t always out of place in the briefings. At times it was, as when he repeatedly pointed out how he (in the form of his secretary of health and human services) had called for a ban on (some) travel from China in late January. He mentioned that in 31 prepared comments and questions, spending just under 20 minutes on the subject.
But the point of the briefings was to brief the public on what was happening. It’s a lot more appropriate to detail how many masks had been acquired and distributed than it is to use the briefing time to disparage the media as “fake news” or to pillory the World Health Organization.
The chart below shows every prepared statement from Trump or question asked of him or the task force, with dots marking different categories of responses from the president.
Trump spent a lot of time doing that, too. As noted above, he spent about two hours attacking others, including the media, Democrats, Joe Biden, China and the World Health Organization. He also spent seven minutes discussing the World Trade Organization, for some reason, repeatedly looping WTO criticism into his WHO attacks without always drawing a clear line between the two.
Not all of the questions at the briefings were targeted at Trump. From April 6 to April 24, there were 80 questions offered to people besides the president, including other members of the task force. Trump gave his thoughts in response to those questions on 28 occasions anyway.
It’s not clear what form the briefings will take moving forward. The White House announced a briefing Monday, then canceled it, then re-announced a news conference helmed by the president. We’ll see what that looks like.
We can predict one thing, however: We should not be surprised if Trump points out how things could be worse, notes that he has already done an awful lot and makes clear just how little of this is his fault.