Trump-NBC battle highlights shortcomings of White House coronavirus briefings

The White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic devolved into a nasty fight on Friday between President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE and an NBC reporter, underscoring the shortcomings of the press event.

The president has re-established himself as the face of his administration’s response to the pandemic, appearing at every news briefing this week and doing the bulk of the speaking after remaining off camera in favor of Vice President Pence during the early days of the outbreak. But it has come with mixed results.

Trump was commended for his tone earlier this week when ordering Americans to stay away from bars and restaurants and limit gatherings amid the outbreak, and a majority of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus, according to a poll released Friday.

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But it has also led to an increased number of inaccurate statements about the administration’s efforts that other officials have been forced to clean up.

“That’s nothing but credibility when you have Anthony Fauci standing next to you,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, referring to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director. “I think the challenge is where we get lost … in some of the details on the rest of it.”

Trump has used his appearance to address the nation directly while outlining specific steps his administration is taking to deal with the crisis.

He’s been more realistic than in January and February in discussing the challenges of the coronavirus, but he’s tripped himself up sometimes in offering an overly optimistic take on where things stand.

On Thursday, Trump suggested the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) had approved a malaria drug for treatment of patients infected with COVID-19, though FDA Commissioner Steven Hahn shortly later noted the drug would still need to be tested.

This was at the root of the issue on Friday with NBC’s Peter Alexander, who had pressed Trump on whether his impulse for the positive was giving Americans a false sense of optimism.

Trump initially didn’t appear to be disturbed by the line of questioning from Alexander, with whom he has tangled in the past.

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“It may work and it may not work,” Trump said of a malaria treatment he’s touted for the coronavirus, and which other officials have been more careful to describe. “I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling.”

But he later exploded at Alexander when the correspondent asked what his message was to Americans who are “scared” amid the pandemic.

“I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” Trump replied. “That’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.”

The briefing devolved from there, with multiple reporters sparring with Trump about his attacks on the news media at a briefing where Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS extends waivers on Iran sanctions amid coronavirus pandemic Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed Democratic senators ask Pompeo to provide coronavirus aid to Palestinian territories MORE urged Americans to get information only from trusted sources.

A few journalists followed up with Trump on Alexander’s question, while others pressed Pompeo about whether he took issue with the president’s remarks.

There were fewer questions about the virus itself, or about the critical lack of masks, gloves and personal protective gear hampering hospitals and health care workers.

Remarkably, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House response, was not asked to respond to a single question on Friday.

It all provided a marked contrast from earlier this week when the president conceded that press coverage of his work addressing the coronavirus had been largely fair. 

Heye said the line of questioning by Alexander represented a missed opportunity for Trump.

“It should have been an opportunity for Trump to demonstrate that he understands the very real fears that Americans rightly have and here’s what he’s doing to fix the problem,” Heye said. 

There have been other missteps or confused signals emanating from the briefings.

Trump on Wednesday announced he had signed the Defense Production Act, but later said he would only invoke the law in a “worst-case scenario.” The president offered conflicting messages about the issue on Friday: He said he invoked it the day previously to help states secure medical equipment like masks and ventilators, but later said he hadn’t needed to use the authority to compel companies to increase production of those supplies before reversing again and saying he had directed “a lot” of companies to do so.  

The media itself has also contributed to some problems.

Reporters, particularly those working for television networks, have long been criticized for playing to the cameras while asking questions. The briefings are being carried live on cable news networks.

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Friday’s briefing started with something of a sideshow atmosphere given the presence of former White House press secretary Sean SpicerSean Michael SpicerMisplaced outrage over who attends a White House press conference Trump-NBC battle highlights shortcomings of White House coronavirus briefings The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump triggers emergency powers to fight outbreak MORE, who walked into the briefing room and took a seat among the journalists as a new employee of Newsmax.

He later asked a question about stock buybacks and small businesses.

A day earlier, a reporter from the conservative One American Network criticized reporters in the briefing room, arguing they were siding with the Chinese government by asking critical questions of Trump’s framing of the coronavirus as a Chinese virus.

The virus originated in China and some U.S. officials have blamed China for delaying the domestic response efforts by withholding details about the virus. The president has said he does not think calling it the Chinese virus is racist despite scrutiny. 

Trump’s tendency to use the briefings to lash out at the media or boast of his performance have at times overshadowed the White House’s preferred message and underscored some of the dysfunction that has led to issues with testing and shortages of supplies.

There are more than 16,600 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, with the numbers increasing daily as testing catches up. More than 200 Americans have died from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The president appeared frustrated on Friday by the focus on the overpromising that’s taken place in recent days. He dismissed a question about states being outbid on supplies by the federal government as “yesterday’s news,” repeatedly passed blame over testing delays onto the prior administration and complained that his administration was not being given its due for its response.

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“We inherited a broken, old, frankly a terrible system,” he said. “We fixed it, and we’ve done a great job. And we haven’t been given the credit we deserve, that I can tell you.”

Trump’s volatile relationship with the media has been a hallmark of his campaigns and administration, with his criticisms of the “fake news” inviting cheers at his jam-packed political rallies. 

But Trump’s latest tussles with reporters comes at a time when his administration is trying to collaborate with major media companies to boost public awareness about the coronavirus. The White House partnered with CBSViacom, ABC/Walt Disney Television and NBCUniversal, which is owned by the same company as NBC News, to disseminate PSAs and infographics about the virus.

“This is a time to come together. But coming together is much harder when we have dishonest journalists,” Trump told reporters on Friday. “It’s a very important profession that you’re in. it’s a profession that I think is incredible. I cherish it. But when people are dishonest, they truly do hurt our country.”

Trump’s allies have downplayed concerns over whether the president’s tone wears on voters, arguing that his flare ups with the media are insignificant compared to how the administration as a whole handles the pandemic.

“I think the issue of tone was way overblown,” said Jason Miller, who served as communications director for the Trump transition team. “This is about action. President Trump was not elected to hold voters’ hands, he was elected to kick some you know what and get things done.”

And there is some evidence that the public likes what it is seeing from Trump.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 55 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s management of the pandemic, compared to 43 percent who disapproved. Those numbers were flipped from just a week earlier.