Election 2020 Politics

Talking through a pandemic: Trump uses words as a weapon in coronavirus response

Trump’s on-air ubiquity is part of a deliberate White House strategy to place the president front and center as the pitchman and public relations impresario for the coronavirus response.

He is saturating cable news and Twitter, filling the airwaves and Internet with words — often hopeful and optimistic talk that at times contradicts his public health experts, is not always rooted in scientific reality and can veer off topic.

But despite the criticism and alarm Trump’s prescriptions have prompted, his poll numbers have ticked up and his dominance of the media landscape has made it more difficult for Democrats — including former vice president Joe Biden, who leads the presidential field in delegates — to break through with their own message.

A recent Gallup poll showed Trump’s approval rating back up to 49 percent, the highest rating of his presidency, from 44 percent earlier this month, with 60 percent of the public approving his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A more recent Monmouth University poll found 50 percent saying Trump has done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, while 45 percent said he has done a bad job.

In some ways, Trump — a former reality television host who craves the spotlight — has long wanted to be his own press secretary, communications director and chief strategist, believing that just about any crisis can be solved through compelling messaging and his own omnipresence.

Recently, he spoke enthusiastically to aides about reopening the White House briefing room, which has languished under current press secretary Stephanie Grisham, and taking to the lectern himself, said one person familiar with the president’s comments, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid details.

The White House has pushed the daily news conference to early evening — a nod to the president’s desire to appear in prime time — and over the past two weeks, those daily briefings have lasted an average of nearly 75 minutes each, according to Factba.se.

Trump walks out to give a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday.
Trump walks out to give a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, in addition to speaking for nearly half of the 41 minute coronavirus news conference, Trump also participated in a virtual Fox News town hall with other virus task force members and conducted a separate Fox News interview. On Thursday, he was slated to appear on Fox News’s “Hannity” in addition to the daily news conference.

“During these uncertain and ever-changing times, it is important that the American people are hearing directly from their president,” Grisham said in an email. “We have also been ensuring that members of the task force are available to give updates and answer questions. Providing the public with as much information as possible right now is paramount.”

When Trump’s coronavirus events are not carried live, his allies have publicly complained. On Monday, White House spokesman Judd Deere took to Twitter to call CNN’s and MSNBC’s decisions not to air the daily briefing in its entirety “pretty disgraceful.” On Thursday, Trump’s son Eric also griped on Twitter about the media not always showing the full briefing: “This is truly sick in the time of national emergency,” he wrote.

But Trump’s turns behind the lectern and on television often result in the spread of misinformation, as well as suggestions — such as the president’s stated wish to reopen the country by Easter — that undermine his own top public health advisers’ positions.

On Wednesday, for instance, a day before the Labor Department announced that a record 3.3 million Americans had applied for unemployment benefits, Trump said he does not believe the economic impact of the coronavirus is “going to end up being such a rough patch.” And amid a global pandemic that so far has sickened more than 82,000 Americans and left more than 1,000 dead, he also spoke about “certain states right now that have virtually no problem” and boasted that he and his team have done “one hell of a job.”

“It’s lucky that you have this group here, right now, for this problem, or you wouldn’t even have a country left, okay?” Trump said.

Trump speaks to members of the media during a briefing at the White House on Wednesday.
Trump speaks to members of the media during a briefing at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In previous news conferences, he repeatedly pushed for the use of several drugs, including a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, to treat the virus, even though there is so far no scientific proof of their efficacy.

Anthony S. Fauci, an infectious-disease expert and member of the coronavirus task force, has tried to reconcile Trump’s overly optimistic rhetoric with medical facts, arguing in briefings and interviews that the president is a well-intentioned leader seeking solace in unproven anecdotal evidence during a time of crisis.

“He’s coming from it from a hope layperson standpoint,” Fauci said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “I’m coming at it from a scientific standpoint.”

Some medical experts argue that Trump’s happy talk is, in fact, dangerous. Benjamin Sommers, a doctor who teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said Trump’s near constant media presence, combined with his muddled comments, is further confusing the virus response.

“What we really don’t need and what isn’t helpful is misinformation or half-formed scientific information being offered from the bully pulpit or fundamentally inconsistent statements day-to-day that leave people quite unclear what the government’s doing and what we all ought to be doing as citizens,” Sommers said.

Trump’s political rivals, too, have tried to turn his constant chatter against him. A pro-Biden super PAC released a nationwide ad this week citing many of Trump’s own words to depict him as unprepared and ill-suited to handle a national crisis. Several other groups have also run similar ads juxtaposing Trump’s running commentary with the grim reality of the worsening coronavirus crisis.

One ad from the Democratic super PAC group Priorities USA — which highlights Trump’s rosy comments about the pandemic while displaying a chart showing the rapidly growing number of coronavirus cases — has drawn particular ire from Trump’s allies. The president’s campaign has called on television stations to stop running the ad, calling it misleading.

Biden has bluntly called on Trump to speak less. “He should stop talking and start listening to the medical experts,” Biden said on CNN on Tuesday.

Trump speaks with the coronavirus task force during a briefing at the White House on Tuesday.
Trump speaks with the coronavirus task force during a briefing at the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But Trump’s stream of words also poses a serious challenge for Democrats, blocking out their own messages and dusting Trump with a veneer of competence and action.

“You see all these positive images and positive statements for the president, and this president has never appeared to suffer when he’s said things that are inaccurate,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “It bolsters up the base, and it may just be that those who don’t love him but just are crying out for leadership view that as leadership.”

Biden, for his part, was initially quiet on the issue, holding calls each morning with a newly assembled group of economic and health advisers but having almost no public presence. Some in his campaign didn’t necessarily think that was problematic, believing that Trump would damage himself, but over time Biden faded from relevance and top Democrats — and his own donors — began pleading with the former vice president to do more.

For the first time in decades, Biden finds himself in the midst of a major crisis without any role as an elected official. He also lacks the tapestry of the White House briefing room and instead has been left with a work-from-home setting where a television camera captures him in his basement, a bookshelf and lamp behind him.

“The new technologies are quite effective,” Biden told reporters during a briefing Wednesday conducted through Zoom software. He noted that his speech Monday was not covered by the networks but said he was pleased when staff told him it got some 3.8 million views online.

Still, the potential nominee seems in search of a prominent platform, saying he was “chomping at the bit” and waxing nostalgic about his days in the Senate when he would have been “able to impact on some of these things.”

“But I am where I am,” Biden said. “I hope to be the nominee of the Democratic Party. And I hope I’m able to get my message across as we go forward.”

Chris Jackson, the chairman pro tempore of the Lawrence County Commission in Tennessee and a Biden supporter, tweeted Wednesday imploring the media to give Biden similar coverage to Trump.

“The saturation of seeing Trump all day — most Americans don’t pay attention to the minutiae of what he says, but all they see is that he’s responding on television all day and think he’s doing a good job,” Jackson said.

For Trump allies, the president’s omnipresence can feel reminiscent of the 2016 campaign, when Trump seemed to be everywhere all at once, be it onstage during rallies, on television or on Twitter.

“Putting the president front and center to address the country day after day is a no-brainer,” said Cliff Sims, a former White House aide who also worked on the president’s 2016 campaign. “The briefings present him as part national leader, part spokesperson, part master of ceremonies. It’s a dynamic that plays to his strengths, and the polling data shows the American people are responding favorably to him taking charge in such a public way.”

Still, there are historical warning signs for the White House — including the political downfall of presidents such as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson after they lost credibility with much of the public. The Johnson administration’s positive spin about the Vietnam War could not withstand the human toll that was being felt by growing numbers of Americans with slain or wounded relatives.

“The crisis came home, and sometimes your loved one came home in a coffin or maimed,” Perry said. “People turned on that president because of the credibility gap.”

Whether Trump will face a similar fate remains to be seen.

“We won’t know, I guess, until November,” she said.

Scott Clement and Matt Viser contributed to this report.

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