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.