Trump thought the coronavirus briefings were a lifeline. He was dead wrong

Trump thought the coronavirus briefings were a lifeline. He was dead wrong
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, delivers remarks and answers questions from members of the press Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Around mid-March Donald Trump had a revelation and a conversion. The campaign season as he knew it had been cut short due to the fast-spreading and highly-contagious coronavirus. He would have to cancel his beloved rallies where thousands of his faithful gathered to soak up all the sludge he could dish out from his diseased brain—a rambling stream of falsities, braggadocio, petty slights, and name calling wrapped in rapturous roars of delight.

As glorious as it was, that was over for now. The coronavirus had stolen it from him. Now was the time to re-introduce himself as commander in chief to a people facing an inordinate amount of distress and uncertainty. Trump had initially deputized Vice President Mike Pence in late February to lead the White House's coronavirus Task Force. "Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me," Trump said on February 26, delegating a responsibility he didn't find particularly sexy. "He’s got a certain talent for this," Trump added, ignoring that as governor of Indiana Pence had presided over a public health debacle over the spread of HIV.

But that was then—as in two weeks prior. No one (except everyone with a brain) could have seen it coming, but the facts on the ground concerning coronavirus had changed. After more than a month of trivializing the epidemic and calling it a Democratic "hoax," it was time for Trump to ride in on his horse, reclaim the spotlight, and project to America a sense that he finally understood the stakes and was taking charge of this dire crisis. And so he did on March 13 in the Rose Garden, declaring a national emergency and rolling out what appeared to be a public-private partnership with giant corporations like Walgreens and Quest Diagnostics that would make drive-thru testing widely available across the country.

On that late Friday afternoon, as Trump called up CEOs to mic, glad-handing them one-by-one, and then tapped one of his top Task Force scientists, Dr. Deborah Birx, to explain the launch of a testing website by Google that didn't actually exist (a genuine hoax!), the stock market rallied until close, rebounding from its worst day in more than 30 years. Trump was pretty proud of himself. "BIGGEST STOCK MARKET RISE IN HISTORY YESTERDAY!" he tweeted first thing Saturday morning.

Good thing he got that tweet in early. News quickly spread that his new testing website was pure fiction. Worse yet, assurances by Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that any economic pain caused by the coronavirus would be brief hit a snag when the Federal Reserve took the extraordinary step on a Sunday of slashing interest rates to close to zero to stabilize the markets. Fail. On Monday, the markets plummeted immediately at opening, triggering a circuit breaker that forced a 15-minute pause in trading so traders could cool down. By day's end, the Dow Jones industrial average had plunged by nearly 3,000 points, the worst point drop in history.

Nonetheless, Trump had supposedly turned the corner toward sobriety, pundits said. He was finally taking the epidemic seriously—seriously enough to stage a fake presser and fabricate a fleeting sense of false hope. Hooray for sobriety.

The conversion that Trump had actually made wasn't one toward understanding the profound magnitude of what the country was facing. Rather it was his realization that the cameras in the briefing room were ripe and ready for his daily appearances, and a nation on edge was both hungry for information and held captive by lockdowns across much of the country. Brilliant! The cameras had been there all along. And now more than ever the public awaited him.

Sure, he had launched the Task Force by declaring the threat almost over, claiming within days the national case count would be "close to zero." And during a visit to Capitol Hill to huddle with Senate Republicans—mere days before declaring the national emergency—Trump had told Americans to "just stay calm," assuring them the virus would simply "go away." But now that the nation was both desperate and rapt, he could utilize the White House briefing room to reinstate the oxygen flow of attention from which he had been so cruelly cut off. All he had to do was feign interest in the national tragedy. So on March 16 Trump rolled out new White House guidelines recommending people avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, including in public spaces such as bars and restaurants. Finally, some bits of truth managed to escape from his mouth. “Each and every one of us has a critical role to play in stopping the spread and transmission of the virus,” Trump said. Wow.

But it was never going to last. Trump has the attention span of a pea and all the seriousness was sure to grow tiresome, especially as Trump's precious economy plunged into a death spiral. Trump quickly grew antsy and impatient. When reporters asked questions he didn't like—such as "What do you say to Americans who are scared?"—Trump called reporters "nasty" and "terrible." Frankly, reality is tedious, even when it's a matter of life and death. The ubiquitous testing Trump had promised, the dwindling case load, the national triumph he foretold, were all dreadfully out of reach. His past statements and loose association with reality came back to haunt him, producing even more lies. Soon Trump was almost entirely crowding out the actual experts (such as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci) from the podium as he trained his anger on reporters for greater and greater portions of the "briefing." On Good Friday, Trump served up fully three hours’ worth of drivel. When asked the crucial question of "what metrics" he would use to determine when to ease social distancing guidelines, Trump pointed to his head and said, "The metrics right here. That’s my metrics."

Whatever goodness might have flowed from the landscape of the Task Force briefings, Trump was bound to turn it into a wasteland. The briefings weren't the rallies Trump needed them to be, and the national audience tuning in wasn't there to delight in the dregs of his putrid soul the way his loyal base always was.  As Tom Nichols wrote for The Atlantic Saturday morning, with each briefing, Trump is making us worse people.

In his daily coronavirus briefings, Trump lumbers to the podium and pulls us into his world: detached from reality, unable to feel any emotions but anger and paranoia. Each time we watch, Trump’s spiritual poverty increases our own, because for the duration of these performances, we are forced to live in the same agitated, immediate state that envelops him.

In other words, for any reasonable human being, the briefings are now unwatchable. The dismal polling this week on Trump's handling of the epidemic rendered an undeniable rebuke of Trump's briefing performances, which is really the only access the American public has to Trump these days. Though Trump had gotten a brief several-point approval bounce shortly after mid-March when he began his regular briefing attendance, he has now piddled that away, with ratings for his COVID response underwater in nearly every national poll this week. It's gotten so bad, Republicans are publicly begging Trump to take a seat as Democrats start producing attack ads from the glut of coronavirus blunders Trump has spewed from the briefing podium.

For any other being, it would be rock bottom, but not for Trump. Next week's a new week and no depth is too low for further excavation.

Here’s Trump explaining his “metric” for determining when to reopen the country.


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