President Trump has personally pledged to spend one billion dollars if it will keep him in the White House. McKay Coppins, a journalist for The Atlantic, has identified how a substantial amount of this funding is being spent. After creating a Facebook page so he could follow pro-Trump social media accounts and communicate with online Trump supporters, Coppins uncovered something remarkable: a campaign-coordinated effort to undermine journalists and the mainstream press on a mass scale. Coppins told Hari Sreenivasan about the Trump campaign’s stunning effort to launch one of the largest disinformation campaigns ever conducted.
Q Kayleigh, you mentioned Dr. King. He, likely, would not have approved of what took place Monday evening across from the White House, as you probably know. If the White House, the President, and his team had to do it all over again, would you have gassed and pummeled protesters to clear the park so the President could have a photo op?
MS. MCENANY: So let me first address: No tear gas was used and no rubber bullets were used.
Q Chemical agents were used.
MS. MCENANY: So, again, no tear gas was used, no rubber bullets were used.
Q Why are you making that distinction?
MS. MCENANY: Let me —
Q Chemical agents were used.
MS. MCENANY: Let me — let me back up and —
Q We talked to an Episcopal priest who said she was gassed. Others say they were tear-gassed in that area.
MS. MCENANY: Well, no one was tear-gassed. Let me make that clear. That’s been confirmed by DOD and by Park Services, as well.
Q But chemical agents were used.
MS. MCENANY: So let me go back and address what happened because there’s been a lot of misreporting.
.. Q Kayleigh, why did the President feel it was important to go and walk over there, through the park, and to the church?
MS. MCENANY: It was extremely important. Look, the President wanted to send a very powerful message that we will not be overcome by looting, by rioting, by burning. This is not what defines America. And going and standing by St John’s Church was a very important moment.
And I would note that, through all of time, we’ve seen Presidents and leaders across the world who have had leadership moments and very powerful symbols that were important for our nation to see at any given time, to show a message of resilience and determination. Like Churchill, we saw him inspecting the bombing damage; it sent a powerful message of leadership to the British people. And George W. Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch after 9/11. And Jimmy Carter, putting on a sweater to encourage energy savings. And George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, flanked by two disabled Americans.
And for this President, it was powerful and important to send a message that the rioters, the looters, the anarchists, they will not prevail; that burning churches are not what America is about. And that moment, holding the Bible up, is something that has been widely hailed by Franklin Graham and others. And it was a very important symbol for the American people to see that we will get through this, through unity and through faith.
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.
The ways he dealt with crises in his business, real estate and even his personal life prove jarring as he leads the government’s response to a pandemic.
WASHINGTON — During his campaign for the White House in 2016, President Trump’s advisers briefly tried to run through with him how he would address a large-scale disaster if he won. What, for instance, would he have done during Hurricane Katrina?
“I would have fixed that,” Mr. Trump replied with certitude, referring to the government’s bungled rescue and recovery efforts, according to a campaign official who was present for the exchange. “I would have come up with a much better response.” How? He did not say. He just asserted it would have been better and advisers did not press him to elaborate.
Mr. Trump is no stranger to crisis. He has spent a lifetime grappling with bankruptcy, fending off creditors, evading tax collectors, defending lawsuits, deflecting regulators, spinning reporters and dueling with estranged wives, usually coming out ahead, at least as he defines it. But these were crises of his own creation involving human adversaries he knew how to confront. Nothing in his background in business, entertainment or multiple marriages prepared him for the coronavirus pandemic now threatening America’s health and wealth.
Mr. Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display the traits that Democrats and some Republicans consider so jarring — the profound
- need for personal praise, the
- propensity to blame others, the
- lack of human empathy, the
- penchant for rewriting history, the
- disregard for expertise, the
- distortion of facts, the
- impatience with scrutiny or criticism.
For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.
“When he’s faced a problem, he has sought to somehow cheat or fix the outcome ahead of time so that he could construct a narrative that showed him to be the winner,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “And when it was all about feuds with other celebrities or contests over ratings or hotel branding, he could do that and no one cared enough to really check. And the bluster and bragging worked.”
“But in this case,” Mr. D’Antonio added, “he tried that in the beginning and you can’t brag or bluster your way out of people dying. And I think more than the suffering, the human suffering, it’s been the inexorable quality of the data that’s forced him to change.”
Only after viral projections grew more dire and markets began to tank did Mr. Trump shift tone and appear to take the threat more seriously, finally adopting a more aggressive set of policies to compel Americans to stay away from one another while trying to mitigate the economic damage.
Some in the public seem to have responded. Fifty-five percent of Americans approved of his handling of the crisis in a poll by ABC News and Ipsos released on Friday, up from 43 percent the previous week. A Reuters poll, also conducted with Ipsos, put approval of his handling of the pandemic at 48 percent, up from 38 percent a couple weeks earlier, while surveys by The Economist and YouGov showed a smaller rise, from 41 percent to 45 percent.
But even as he has seemed to take the crisis more seriously, Mr. Trump has continued to make statements that conflicted with the government’s own public health experts and focused energy on blaming China, quarreling with reporters, claiming he knew that the coronavirus would be a pandemic even when he was minimizing its threat only a few weeks ago and congratulating himself for how he has managed a crisis he only recently acknowledged.
“We’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve done a great job,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve done a phenomenal job on this,” he said Thursday.
The next day he grew irritated when Peter Alexander of NBC News asked if he was giving Americans a “false sense of hope” by promising immediate delivery of a drug that experts said is not proven. Mr. Trump said he disagreed with them. “Just a feeling,” he said. “You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it.”
Mr. Alexander moved onto his next question, a “softball” by his own reckoning, asking what Mr. Trump would say to Americans who were at home watching and scared. Most presidents would use the opportunity to offer reassuring words. But Mr. Trump was still steamed and snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.”
Later in the same briefing, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS’s “NewsHour” asked when everyone who needed a coronavirus test would be able to get one, as he asserted two weeks ago that every person already could. “Nobody is even talking about it except for you, which doesn’t surprise me,” he said dismissively. How about people with symptoms who could not get a test, he was asked. “I’m not hearing it,” he replied.
The White House rejects any criticism of the president as illegitimate. “This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis, and while the Democrats and the media shamelessly try and destroy this president with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has risen to fight this crisis head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
Mr. Trump acted at the end of January to restrict travel from China, where the outbreak was first detected, and repeatedly points back to that decision, arguing that he saved lives as a result. But he resisted stronger action for weeks. Even as governors, mayors and businesses decided on their own to curb large gatherings and eventually close down schools, restaurants and workplaces, the president at first offered no guidance about whether to take such action.
He has repeatedly misrepresented the state of the response — promising a vaccine “soon” that will actually take at least a year to develop, insisting that tests were available while patients struggled to find any, boasting about the availability of millions of masks while health care workers took to stitching together homemade versions. And dismissing the threat for weeks may have led to complacency among some Americans who could have acted much sooner to take precautions.
Mr. Trump’s defensiveness over the pandemic has become a central dynamic inside the White House as officials wrestle with difficult policy choices. Aides have long understood that Mr. Trump needs to hear support for his decisions, preferably described in superlatives. He often second-guesses himself, prompting advisers to ask allies to tell him he made the right call or go on Fox News to make that point in case he might be watching.
Over the last week, as Mr. Trump has faced ever more draconian and expensive options, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, sought to coax him into action by using bits of praise in news coverage or from other officials as a motivator, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Officials have learned that the president craves a constant diet of flattery, which they serve up during daily televised briefings. Vice President Mike Pence makes a point of repeating it day after day, sometimes repeatedly in the course of a single briefing. “Mr. President, from early on, you took decisive action,” he said during one.
Other advisers have followed suit. “Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe,” Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, told him at one point. “I want to thank you for your leadership during this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told him at another.
Even Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the veteran infectious diseases expert known for his just-the-facts style, has sometimes joined in praise of the president, at one point referring to Mr. Trump’s “proactive, leaning-forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve” approach. While Dr. Fauci does not hesitate to correct the president’s facts, as he did on Friday over the unproven drug, he does so politely, careful to maintain his viability within a political team. Still, many noticed that he put his hand to his face in seeming disbelief when Mr. Trump referred to his diplomats as the “Deep State Department.”
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said Mr. Trump had been unfairly criticized for his handling of the virus. “The media virtually ignore the president’s massive effort mobilizing the federal government, our industrial base and the scientific and medical community to combat this pandemic, rivaling F.D.R.’s arsenal of democracy,” he said.
Mr. King said that Mr. Trump was working with Democrats but the news media “prefer to dwell on initial failure of C.D.C. test kits and low inventory of masks and ventilators going back two administrations.” Still, he said of Mr. Trump, “He too often takes the bait.”
None of which comes as a surprise to those who dealt with Mr. Trump or studied his life before he became president. In real estate, he found he could overcome crises by bluffing his way past regulators, bullying the bankers and bamboozling the tabloids.
When banks came after him for overdue loans, he pushed back, arguing that it was in their interest that his brand not be harmed by calling him out. When contractors demanded to be paid, he found complaints about their work and refused, leading in part to more than 3,500 lawsuits. When his first two marriages fell apart, he took a scorched-earth approach against his wives, leaking to New York’s gossip columnists even if it meant his children watched ugly divorces play out in public.
“The typical modus operandi from him is to bluff, is to fake, is to deny,” said Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
When Mr. Trump prepared to open the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1990 and ran into trouble with the authorities, he summoned Mr. O’Donnell. “He told them I was an expert in operations and I could fix this,” Mr. O’Donnell recalled. “And they believed him. I was dumbfounded. He was completely bluffing them.”
To Mr. Trump, most of his crises were about paper and money, not people. The self-described “king of debt” treated loan repayments almost as if they were optional and made it a mantra never to back down. “I figured it was the bank’s problem, not mine,” he wrote in one of his books. “What the hell did I care? I actually told one bank, ‘I told you, you shouldn’t have loaned me that money.’”
Perhaps the only time before his presidency that the human toll of a crisis really struck Mr. Trump in a personal way came when three of his executives died in a helicopter crash heading to Atlantic City. He seemed genuinely shaken, visiting the widows to share in their grief.
“I actually think he handled that situation about as well as you could expect from him,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “It was such a shock to him. It was the first time I heard fear in his voice. It was the first time I saw empathy, that I saw emotion from him, because he realized the human loss there.”
Even then, Mr. Trump could not help inserting himself into the story, suggesting falsely that he almost boarded the helicopter himself. And within months, with his Taj project flailing, Mr. Trump began publicly attributing problems to the dead executives. In a crisis, “he always was more focused on who he could blame versus fixing the problem,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who quit in disgust.
Nor did Mr. Trump exhibit much empathy for the workers who lost their jobs when his casinos went bust. Instead, when asked about his failed Atlantic City ventures, he emphasizes his own ability to escape unharmed. “The money I took out of there was incredible,” he once told The New York Times.
The closest analogue to the current situation may be the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, another national trauma. Mr. Trump tried to thrust himself into the news coverage, telling an interviewer by phone that day that with the destruction of the World Trade Center he now had the tallest building in New York City, a claim that was not even true. He also has said he spent extensive time around the site trying to help the cleanup, a claim that has never been verified.
With the airports closed at the time, Mr. Trump was asked to provide his private plane to fly Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki to Washington for President George W. Bush’s address to Congress. Mr. Trump agreed — but in return asked for help getting permission to travel from Washington to another destination when others were grounded.
By his own account, Mr. Trump never imagined that he would be facing a pandemic, an invisible killer immune to bluster. “In every previous occasion, he was facing a human being or groups of human beings,” said Gwenda Blair, the author of a biography of the Trump family. “And obviously the coronavirus, it’s not a person, can’t be bullied.”
So Mr. Trump, with his recent descriptions of a war to be won over a “foreign enemy,” is seeking a dynamic that he is familiar with, personifying the virus as an opponent to be beaten, framing it as the kind of crisis he knows how to tackle. “He’s trying to make it into a win-lose situation,” she said. “That’s how he sees the world — winners, him, losers everybody else. He’s trying to make the coronavirus into a loser and himself the winner.”