“It’s a great way to get information out to the public as to where we are with the vaccines and the therapeutics,” he said Monday in announcing the return.
Restarting these briefings carries political pros and cons for Trump, who is down in the polls to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in large part because Americans disapprove of how the president has handled the pandemic.
But Trump is struggling so much that he may not have a choice other than to get back on camera daily or near daily, said GOP strategist Doug Heye. Trump has got to find a way to be seen as a leader on the coronavirus response, as cases continue to rise including in red states. He’s being criticized by even some Republicans governors in the face of reports about how he and his administration failed to contain the virus.
Let’s examine how these briefings could help and hurt Trump’s reelection chances.
Pro: He can dominate the news cycle again
Over the weekend, both The Washington Post and the New York Times published long pieces about how the virus is resurging in the United States while nearly the rest of the industrialized world has it comparatively tamed. The broad takeaway from both stories: Trump and his administration failed to recognize — or didn’t care — that governors opening states in May would lead to high rates of infections, which the federal government and those states were still unequipped to deal with.
That’s not a narrative Trump wants out there, especially because it seems to be resonating with Americans. In a Post-ABC News poll out in the past week, more than half of Americans, 52 percent, say they strongly disapprove of how the president is handling the pandemic. In March, when the United States started shutting down and Trump got a brief bump in support, just 36 percent said that.
So, with these briefings, Trump has a chance to talk about what he wants to talk about. His comments Monday suggest that having eyeballs on him is very much on his mind: “I was doing them, and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching in the history of cable television, and there’s never been anything like it,” he said.
Con: He’ll probably say something controversial that will dominate the news cycle
Republicans in Congress and outside advisers hope Trump will let scientists and experts on the task force do most of the talking.
But they publicly urged the president to do the same thing last time around, and he ignored them. His instinct to take center stage in these briefings led to his insistence that he alone has the authority to open states, his advocacy for an unproven drug, his prediction that the virus would go away in the summer, his attacks on reporters for asking tough questions and, eventually, his musing on whether disinfectant could be injected into coronavirus patients. The briefings ended shortly after that.
Months later, Trump continues to spread false information about the virus that suggests he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care to know about how dangerous it is. In a Fox News interview with host Chris Wallace that aired Sunday, Trump inaccurately said cases were up because testing was up and brushed off nearly 1,000 people dying a day as young adults who “have the sniffles.”
Pro: He can play up issues his base likes to hear about
China and its handling of the novel coronavirus. The culture war he’s started against wearing masks. Confederate monuments. Sending federal troops into U.S. cities to get tough on protesters. Attacking Democrats.
These are all issues Trump regularly talks about on his Twitter feed and would probably bring up in these briefings.
Con: He will play up issues his base likes to hear about
That strategy may have narrowly won him the 2016 election, but there’s no evidence it’s helping him win in 2020. Polls show he is actually losing support from groups that have made up key constituencies who disapprove of his coronavirus response.
Pro: He’ll be on TV much more than former vice president Joe Biden
One of Trump’s attacks on his presumptive November opponent is that Biden, who is following the Trump government guidelines to avoid large crowds, is hiding from the American people. Trump held a campaign rally in Tulsa in June to try to contrast himself with Biden. He’s not scheduled to hold any more rallies (attendance in Tulsa wasn’t great), but going on TV nearly daily could help him make that case.
This pro assumes that being out and about during a pandemic is a positive, which is not a guarantee, given that Americans are still largely afraid that they or their loved ones will contract the virus.
Con: He’ll have to answer for his government’s failures
And those failures are well documented. Journalists have had months to demonstrate not just how Trump and his administration missed the virus coming to shore in February and botched testing to get ahead of it, but also how the administration completely missed the virus spreading to the South and West as states reopened at the beginning of the summer.
From The Post on Sunday:
Many countries have rigorously driven infection rates nearly to zero. In the United States, coronavirus transmission is out of control. The national response is fragmented, shot through with political rancor and culture-war divisiveness. Testing shortcomings that revealed themselves in March have become acute in July, with week-long waits for results leaving the country blind to real-time virus spread and rendering contact tracing nearly irrelevant.… The fumbling of the virus was not a fluke: The American coronavirus fiasco has exposed the country’s incoherent leadership, self-defeating political polarization, a lack of investment in public health, and persistent socioeconomic and racial inequities that have left millions of people vulnerable to disease and death.
Pro: If the briefings go right for him, it can give him a much-needed boost
In a nation divided and scared, people are hungry for information. And a leader. And guidance for how to live their lives now. (Should they wear a mask in public like scientists and health officials urge, or skip one like Trump frequently does? Should they send their children to school in the fall? Can they go back to the office and places of worship?)
In restarting the coronavirus briefings, Trump has the potential to revive their original intent to perform the above services for anxious Americans. If he can do that (or step aside and allow other officials to do it for him), he could see a bump in his approval rating similar to the small one he had when the coronavirus first shut down the nation in March. “Presidents get bumps in crises,” Heye said.
Though Trump will want to be careful not to conflate the two: The growth that Trump saw in his approval ratings around the time of starting the briefings wasn’t linked to the briefings themselves, as The Post’s Philip Bump explains.
Con: There’s little evidence that Trump wants to take the virus seriously
Trump still hasn’t acknowledged the virus’s resurgence publicly, which many experts saw happening as early as May. He wore a mask in public for the first time only in the past week — though on Monday, he tweeted a photo of himself wearing one, a rare embrace of masks on his part.
But Trump continues to question the data his government is providing about rising cases and deaths and the effectiveness of masks and social distancing to tame the virus.
A continuation of how Trump has been handling the pandemic — but now broadcast to the nation and world in regular coronavirus briefings — could be disastrous for him politically.
This has been updated with the latest news.