The move to revive the briefings, which were at times contentious, meandering and at odds with public health guidance, comes as Trump has struggled to turn the country’s attention away from the surging coronavirus and accompanying economic devastation months before voters head to the polls.
“I think it’s a great way to get information out to the public as to where we are with the vaccines, with the therapeutics, and, generally speaking, where we are,” Trump told reporters Monday. “I’ll do it at 5 o’clock, like we were doing. We had a good slot. And a lot of people were watching.”
Trump’s focus on vaccines, therapeutics and television ratings offers an indication that the briefings will continue to be a platform for the president to put a positive spin on the pandemic even as it worsens. Trump’s previous turn at the lectern included several attempts to tout unproven treatments for the virus, ranging from hydroxychloroquine to disinfectant and light.
He regularly got into tiffs with reporters who pointed out shortcomings in his administration’s response — once storming out of the Rose Garden after being challenged by two journalists.
While some Republicans criticized the briefings in March and April as unfocused and unhelpful, others welcomed the news Monday that the president would be publicly returning his attention to the pandemic, which now sits atop the list of issues most pressing to voters. Trump’s efforts to ignore and play down the virus in recent weeks have irked Republican lawmakers and governors — some of whom have publicly criticized him for not doing more to lead the country during a crisis.
Even some of Trump’s aides publicly called on him to begin playing a more central role in the national response to the virus, which has infected more than 3.8 million Americans, killing more than 138,000. Trump, who called himself a “wartime president” during a White House briefing in March, tried to move on rhetorically from the crisis by declaring a “transition to greatness” in May and drastically reducing his mentions of the virus even as it spread at a record pace in recent weeks.
After mentioning the virus more than 812 times in March and April, Trump did so only 278 times in May and June, according to Factba.se, a data analytics firm that tracks the president’s comments and tweets.
“I just think the people want to hear from the president of the United States,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Friday. She told Fox News earlier Friday that some of her White House colleagues did not want Trump to return to the briefing room — confirming publicly the kind of internal dissension previous administrations would have tried to keep out of the public domain.
Vice President Pence has advocated for briefings to return for several weeks, thinking they were helpful to the administration and informative, according to two administration officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Some administration officials were opposed to the briefings, and others, including communications director Alyssa Farah and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, have called for briefings to take place at the Department of Health and Human Services or elsewhere — with health experts and a health-focused press corps, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Among the allies urging Trump to do more about the virus is Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who golfed with the president on Saturday and Sunday. Graham said Trump was going to be “more involved” on the virus, and he counseled him to hold events in the Cabinet Room or Roosevelt Room with business leaders, or others, while taking a few questions at the end.
“Arguing with a reporter for 30 minutes doesn’t help,” Graham said, adding that the original format was at times counterproductive.
The president, Graham said, wants to talk about a potential vaccine and some improvements in personal protective equipment, along with what the country is doing about testing and his animus toward China.
“I think you’re going to see him very focused on the coronavirus,” Graham said, adding that Trump is very angry with China.
Several White House officials said the administration had to talk more about the virus because Trump’s poll numbers have fallen significantly in recent weeks.
There has been a net drop of 28 points in his approval margin on the virus since March, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Currently, 38 percent approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and 60 percent disapprove. Trump trails his Democratic rival Joe Biden 55 percent to 40 percent among registered voters in the poll, the latest to show a double-digit gap.
“Do you think what we’re doing right now is working?” one official said, when asked whether the briefings would improve the president’s standing.
Officials are hoping to prep the president for shorter briefings.
Many of the briefings are likely to feature just the president — a departure from previous events where public health officials also appeared, administration officials said.
“The plan is for them to be the president and to keep them short and tight,” a senior administration official said, adding that Trump could appear multiple times per week.
After the president’s last set of briefings, advisers pleaded with him to stop or cut back, citing his plummeting poll numbers. Among those advisers: Ronna McDaniel, Jared Kushner and former campaign manager Brad Parscale. After Trump’s final briefing, in which he suggested that disinfectant could be used internally to kill the virus, he relented.
But in recent days, some of his political advisers have argued that he has to focus more on the virus, with record high caseloads reported almost daily. The president has finally been persuaded, advisers said, to talk more about the crisis.
There was relief among the president’s advisers when he agreed to wear a mask for a visit this month to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and advisers quickly praised him and posted images publicly on their social media feeds.
Trump, who used previous briefings to contradict health experts and play down the importance of wearing masks, sought to change course Monday — tweeting a picture of himself with his face covered.
Calling himself “your favorite President,” Trump wrote that “many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance.”
Trump’s critics have argued that the president has already shown that he cannot be trusted to responsibly command the country’s attention during the crisis. Some have pushed for television networks not to air the briefings, which have at times run for two hours and veered into a tangle of subjects unrelated to the pandemic.
“We’ve watched this exact scene from Donald Trump’s ongoing horror movie before when he hijacked the briefings and spread dangerous misinformation, including advising Americans who get COVID-19 to inject themselves with disinfectant — drowning out the same public health experts who he’s now outright attacking,” Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said in a statement.
Trump’s campaign has tried to draw a contrast between the president’s front-and-center approach and Biden’s more low-key campaign, which has attempted to follow health guidelines by avoiding unnecessary gatherings.
“Americans can see that President Trump has been out front and leading the country through the coronavirus crisis,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. “That’s in marked contrast to Joe Biden, who sits in his basement and lobs ineffective partisan hand grenades with the sole purpose of turning a health crisis into a political weapon.”
Trump himself has vacillated over the usefulness of the briefings, first defending them and pointing to strong ratings before lamenting his coverage by the news media.
“The Wall Street Journal always ‘forgets’ to mention that the ratings for the White House Press Briefings are “through the roof” (Monday Night Football, Bachelor Finale, according to @nytimes) & is only way for me to escape the Fake News & get my views across,” Trump tweeted on April 9 after the Journal’s editorial board described the conferences as “wasted” time.
A couple of weeks later, shortly after Trump created a firestorm with his comments about injecting disinfectant, he expressed a different view of the briefings.
“What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately,” Trump tweeted on April 25. “They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News. Not worth the time & effort!”
In the weeks since he ended the daily briefings, Trump has held rallies in coronavirus hotspots; commuted the sentence of political ally Roger Stone; defended Confederate generals and symbols; pledged to sign executive orders on health care and immigration; threatened to cut funding for schools that don’t hold in-person classes this fall; and posed with a Bible in front of a church for a photo op after law enforcement cleared peaceful protesters from the area.
Scott Reed, a veteran Republican operative and chief strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said a return to the coronavirus briefings could be an opportunity for the Trump administration to “stop running down unimportant rabbit trails.”
“The voters care about a solution to the virus,” he said in an email. “Good move that the President is restarting the briefings — a real chance to deliver a sharp message, repeat it over and over, and exit stage right for the medical pros.”
But Sarah Matthews, a White House spokeswoman, said that in addition to speaking “directly to the American people” about the federal coronavirus response, Trump would use the daily briefings to discuss “other pertinent issues.”