The President’s mendacious nightly press briefings on the coronavirus will go down in history for their monumental flimflammery.
During the Vietnam War, the United States had the Five O’Clock Follies, nightly briefings at which American military leaders claimed, citing a variety of bogus statistics, half-truths, and misleading reports from the front, to be winning a war that they were, in fact, losing. Richard Pyle, the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief, called the press conferences “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd,” which, minus the “Southeast Asia” part, is not a bad description of the scene currently playing out each evening in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the White House. We now have the Trump Follies, the nightly briefings at which President Trump has lied and bragged, lamented and equivocated, about the global pandemic that poses an existential threat to his Presidency. Just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment. There will be much material for them; the transcripts from just the first three days of this week runs to more than forty thousand words.
Since Trump began making the press conferences a daily ritual a couple of weeks ago—an eternity in the pandemic era—his more memorable lines are already featuring in political attacks against him. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump insisted, two weeks ago. When asked to assess his own performance, he said, “I’d rate it a ten.” This Wednesday, with members of his coronavirus task force joining him onstage, he added, “We’ve done one hell of a job. Nobody has done the job that we’ve done. And it’s lucky that you have this group here right now for this problem or you wouldn’t even have a country left.”
The disconnect between Trumpian reality and actual reality has never been on starker display than in the past few days, as the true face of the horror we are facing in the United States has shown itself, in New York City, with overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms, a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks from the federal government, and heartbreaking first-person accounts reminiscent of the open letters sent from Italy a few weeks back, which warned Americans: this is what is coming for you—don’t make our mistakes. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said that the United States was emerging as the “epicenter” of the global pandemic, which makes the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room the emerging epicenter of the failure to respond to it.
A couple of weeks ago, it seemed as if maybe that would not be the case. Although the Trump Administration had faltered and delayed and denied through the initial stages of the virus, when it raged outside our borders, it looked like it might finally get its act together and take this public-health menace seriously, now that it was hitting in force inside the U.S. Trump declared a “national emergency,” stepped up testing, and, on March 16th, agreed to his crisis committee’s plan for a fifteen-day countrywide slowdown, in order to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s trajectory. Barely a week into the fifteen days, however, Trump began signalling an abrupt change of course—at just the moment when the disease was accelerating its deadly progress through a wealthy nation that turned out to be surprisingly ill-prepared for it.
Throughout this long, strange March, Trump has often framed the fight against the pandemic in martial terms: a “battle” to be won, a victory to be achieved, a shared sacrifice against “this invisible enemy” which would go on “until we have defeated the virus.” But the Commander-in-Chief did something extraordinary this week: he rebelled against his own clichés, essentially declaring that he no longer wanted to be at war with the virus after all.
On Sunday, he prefigured this pivot, apparently after watching the Fox News host Steve Hilton complain about the treatment—a shut-down country and a cratered economy—being worse than the disease. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted, shortly before midnight. By the Monday-night edition of the Follies, which are usually scheduled for 5 p.m. but often not started until later, Trump was repeating this line over and over again. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he said. “We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.” Later, he added, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” and also, “We can’t let that happen. . . . We can’t let this continue to go on.” America, he said, would be “open for business” soon.
On Tuesday, which marked a month since a now-infamous tweet in which the President claimed that “the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” Trump was even more specific. He announced that afternoon, on a Fox News special from the White House lawn, that he wanted to get the country reopened and the church pews “packed” by Easter, on April 12th, at just the time when New York and other states were predicted to face the maximum pressure on their overstretched medical facilities. A few hours later, at the nightly press briefing, he was asked about this seemingly arbitrary timetable by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
“Who suggested Easter?” Collins asked. “Who suggested that day?” Trump replied, “I just thought it was a beautiful time. It would be a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It’s a great day.” Collins followed up: “So that wasn’t based on any of the data?” “I just think it would be a beautiful timeline,” Trump responded.
This was painfully revealing: the President, under questioning by an independent reporter, was admitting that he wanted to do something with no basis in science. In fact, within minutes, some of the nation’s leading experts on pandemics panned the suggestion as dangerous and ill conceived. By Wednesday, Trump was still talking about an Easter deadline, but only promising a new “recommendation” at that time. “I’m not going to do anything rash or hastily,” he said, which is as close to a reassuring statement from the President as he will ever offer.
On Thursday, Trump appeared before the cameras just before 5:30 p.m., minutes after the Times reported that the United States now had more than eighty-one thousand recorded cases of the coronavirus, surpassing China as the world’s No. 1 country in terms of confirmed infections. When asked about the statistic, Trump acted as though this, too, was some sort of an achievement of his to be praised, saying that the high number was “a tribute to our testing.” Despite the day’s grim news, with his Administration reporting a record-high week of unemployment claims, Trump continued his upbeat tone. The world “is going to end up better than ever,” he said, before reading out all the names of the members of the G-20 world leaders with whom he had spoken that morning, listing the provisions of the two-trillion-dollar emergency-aid package that Congress is finalizing, and even reciting the number of gloves that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent to individual states. Eventually, he got around to his main point, which is that “we’ve gotta go back to work.” Earlier on Thursday, his Administration had sent a letter to governors, saying it would soon issue new guidelines rating U.S. counties by their varied levels of risk for the disease and suggesting that those with lower risk could resume business more quickly. Trump offered no specifics, but touted it as a needed step. “I think it’s going to happen pretty quickly,” he said. He never mentioned the word “Easter.”
After all that, it was hard not to think of Trump’s whole “beautiful timeline” as yet another monumental act of Presidential flimflammery, a distracting week of misdirection to keep us all occupied while those of us who are still working do so from home. Trump’s open-by-Easter pledge may well be as quickly forgotten as his other lies during the coronavirus crisis thus far, such as when he said that the cases would go down to near zero in a few days, that the disease would simply disappear, and that it would never make it to our shores in significant numbers.
These daily Presidential briefings have understandably become controversial among the national media, which is wary of being played by an attention-seeking President. Neither the Times nor the Washington Post are sending reporters to them, citing the health risk. (A journalist who had attended several of the sessions has reportedly contracted the virus; even still, the President refuses to follow the social-distancing dictates that his government is urging others to practice.) Sources at various television networks have said that the networks were considering no longer airing them, although they have so far continued to do so. The Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has argued that the briefings should not be broadcast live anymore, citing the fact that the President was using them as a platform for “self-aggrandizement,” “media-bashing,” and “exaggeration and outright lies.”
Trump will keep doing them, however, because they work. According to the Times, ratings for Trump’s briefings rival those for “hit reality shows and prime-time football.” Trump, whose star turn on NBC’s “The Apprentice” arguably had as much to do with his election to the Presidency as anything else, is obsessed with ratings. His other metrics are good, too, including a Gallup poll showing him with the highest approval rating of his Presidency (forty-nine per cent, versus a forty-five per cent disapproval rating). Even more striking were the results of a CBS/YouGov poll, released this week, in which respondents were asked what sources of information about the coronavirus they found most credible. Democrats rated medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most highly. Trump came in last among this group, at fourteen per cent. But, for Republicans, Trump came in at the top, with ninety per cent saying that they trusted the President’s information about the coronavirus, making him tied for first place with medical professionals. The poll shows that, even when their own lives are literally at stake, a significant subset of the American population no longer believes in almost anything other than the President.
This, in the end, is why Trump’s nightly Follies matter. Even if he cannot reopen the country by Easter, and governors and mayors ignore him, as they surely will. Even if what he says is so contradictory and at times patently false that his own followers could not possibly heed his advice as a practical guide to action.
In the long course of the Vietnam War, which lasted a full decade, some fifty-eight thousand Americans died. With the pandemic, many scientific models publicized in recent days have projected that U.S. deaths could reach far beyond that figure by the time the coronavirus has run its course, depending at least in part on what decisions Trump and other leaders take in the coming months. But this week’s Follies have shown an irresolute leader who does not want to fight the war or even, on many days, admit that it exists. He is a cartoon caricature of a wartime President, not a real one.
A Vietnam draft-dodger, who used a phony foot problem to get out of that war, Trump this week has reminded us that he would like to be a coronavirus draft-dodger, too. But the fight is not a hoax, no matter how often he suggests it is, and the President, like it or not, is already in the fight. On Tuesday, he told the country that he would soon be reopening it, “as we near the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy.” By the time you read this, though, the battle will not be over, or even really begun. As soon as Trump finished speaking on Thursday, CNN interrupted the briefing to broadcast the news that it had been the deadliest day yet in the pandemic for the United States, with at least two hundred and thirty-seven dead, and hours more to go.
leads to only one conclusion: Donald Trump is either an asset of Russian intelligence or really enjoys playing one on TV.
.. There is overwhelming evidence that our president, for the first time in our history, is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior — behavior that violates his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
.. Every single Republican lawmaker will be — and should be — asked on the election trail: Are you with Trump and Putin or are you with the C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A.?
.. It started with the shocking tweet that Trump issued before he even sat down with Putin this morning: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The official Twitter account of the Russian foreign ministry — recognizing a useful idiot when it saw one — immediately “liked” Trump’s tweet and later added: “We agree.”
I’ll bet they do.
.. And in a bit of shocking moral equivalence, Trump added of the United States and Russia: “We are all to blame … both made some mistakes.” Trump said that it was actually the American probe into the Russian hacking that has “kept us apart.”
.. To watch an American president dis his own intelligence agencies, blame both sides for the Russian hacking of our election — and deliberately try to confuse the fact that there is still no solid proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia with the fact that Russia had its own interest in trying to defeat the anti-Putin Hillary Clinton — actually made me sick to my stomach.
.. I completely endorse the former C.I.A. director John O. Brennan’s tweet after the news conference:
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
.. the fact that he may not have colluded with the Russians doesn’t mean he does not, as president, have a responsibility to ensure that the Russians be punished for interfering in our last election on their own and be effectively deterred from doing so in the future. That is in his job description.
.. Listening to Trump, it was as if Franklin Roosevelt had announced after Pearl Harbor: “Hey, both sides are to blame. Our battleships in Hawaii were a little provocative to Japan — and, by the way, I had nothing to do with the causes for their attack. So cool it.”
.. In the past few years what has Putin done to deserve an American president sucking up to him for an “extraordinary” relationship?
- Putin has seized Crimea,
- covertly invaded Ukraine,
- provided the missiles that shot down a civilian Malaysian airliner over Ukraine,
- bombed tens of thousands of refugees out of Syria into Europe, destabilizing Europe,
- been involved in the death of a British woman who accidentally handled a Russian nerve agent deployed to kill ex-Russian agents in England and
- deployed misinformation to help tip the vote in Britain toward exiting and fracturing the European Union.
Most of all, Putin unleashed a cyberattack on America’s electoral process, aimed at both electing Trump — with or without Trump’s collusion — and sowing division among American citizens.
Trump thought you can’t buy an AR-15 in a store legally. (2 min)
This is not 1933, but Trump is eroding the norms.
Not everyone has had the same advantages, don’t apologize, but live up to them. (20 min)
Donald Trump was rated as “more honest” because he doesn’t equivocate. This may change how future candidates speak.
After Charlottesville, leaders of all branches of the military posted (on twitter?) comments condemning the President (33-34 min)
We can’t restore bipartisanship, but we can’t do certain things. You can’t threaten to default on the national dept. It’s not acceptable to filibustering
President Trump played a respected, competent, caring business leader, holding people accountable people who never always avoid accountability but everyday people are fired.
They thought here’s someone who is going to be able get something done.
There are certain promises you make– I’ll balance the budget — and then there are promises you keep — I’ll be at your fundraiser. (47 min)
Saddam Hussein had been a threat — he had gotten into wars multiple times. In the upheaval after 911 he was going to be a dangerous actor. I assumed there was good evidence for it. The sanctions regime was deteriorating.
The most important media companies are Facebook, Reddit, Twitter.
There is a tension between Democrats wanting to influence 2018 and those who care about 2020.
America’s problems arise from cultural and economic issues. When native population falls below replacement thresholds, immigration raises cultural concerns.
You want unilateral disarmament. If you adopt his tactics, you don’t stop him, you replace him. You want the people in power to accept limits, which means that you have to accept limits.
Lyndon Johnson lied about the Tonkin, but he gave you the tools to confront him. He never isn’t that it didn’t make a difference.The present situation is an attack on the way the executive branch functions (1:14 min).
Fox News accused CNN of manipulating the town hall questions. (1:16 min)
On the matter of the FISA warrents, it was obvious to everyone that Trump was engaged in contacts with Russian intelligence and was surrounded by people with Russian ties. When Henry Wallace ran in 1948, his campaign was staffed with foreign agents. Charles Limburg accepted a Natzi medal. Carter Page was signaling that he wanted to be used. If that person were on the left, we would recognize the symptoms. (1:20 min)
The president doesn’t pretend to represent all citizens—just his most hardcore supporters.
.. Trump has carved out for himself a uniquely agonistic and tribalistic persona. He’s polarizing, and proud of it.
.. To win the presidency, you first need to win the support of a major political party, which means having a partisan identity. But once in power, the commander in chief is supposed to preside over the whole nation, not just those who voted for him.
.. But Trump has decided to forgo any attempt at conciliation. Instead, he’s run a bluntly partisan presidency, where his rhetoric is geared toward pleasing fanatical Fox News viewers more than creating a broad coalition. It’s a peculiarity of Trump’s behavior that he talks openly about his base, not even pretending to be the president of all Americans.
.. “The ugly truth is that white nationalists, the KKK, neo-Nazis and other bigots are indeed part of the Trump base,” columnist Brent Budowsky argued at The Hill. “Trump should throw these bigots out of his base. He should say he does not want their support. He should name names and name hate groups, loudly and repeatedly, and say he does not want their votes, their support, their praise and that he believes they are a stain on America.”
.. Rather than heeding such advice, Trump is moving in the opposite direction—and paying a political price for it.
.. As the president is increasingly criticized from outside his base, he’ll increasingly use his passionate fans as a political shield. And as Charlottesville proves, if those fans end up killing someone, the president will defend them. Caught in the closed loop of fan-servicing, Trump is setting the nation on a path toward further radicalization and further violence.