The Memo: Trump’s coronavirus briefings face criticism

President Trump’s daily press briefings on the coronavirus are facing a backlash from critics who say they are hindering rather than helping the nation’s efforts to combat the pandemic.

The daily briefings have seen Trump give misleading information, tangle with members of the media and go off on unrelated tangents. 

They have been conducted by the president and a rotating group of officials who have been in close physical proximity to each other— a practice that is in defiance of the rules of social distancing that are aimed at blunting the spread of COVID-19.

At the latest briefing on Monday, Trump signaled he would be moving sooner rather than later to lift at least some social distancing policies recommended by the federal government that have closed down businesses to prevent the spread of the virus. This has had a calamitous effect on the economy. 

But lifting the policies too early would contravene the advice of health experts, who are worried that a flood of cases could be too much for the nation’s hospitals to take.

Trump at several briefings has talked up the potential for successful treatment of COVID-19 by an anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, despite a lack of firm evidence of its efficacy.

Such pronouncements have clearly raised concerns among some of the medical professionals appearing alongside Trump, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci was absent from Monday’s briefing.

“It is head-spinning,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law and the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

“The public must be thoroughly confused because one day we are hearing health officials say this is very serious and we must take aggressive measures,” Gostin added. “Then the next day, the president will undermine that message either by saying it is under control or that, because of the economy, we have to get people back to work.”

Fauci, in a remarkable interview with Science magazine published online on Sunday evening, made plain his exasperation with elements of Trump’s approach.

Fauci said he would “never” echo Trump’s description of the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” — a label that has been condemned as racist, even though the president denies that it is.

Referring to Trump’s apparent misunderstanding of when China could have let the United States know about the virus’s initial appearance, Fauci said, “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”

And asked by interviewer Jon Cohen about a claim about timing that “just doesn’t comport with facts,” Fauci replied: “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?”

Trump at Monday’s briefing appeared to be shifting on some issues. He notably did not call the coronavirus the China virus and he criticized hateful actions taken against Asian Americans — which critics have blamed on his own rhetoric. He and other officials also seemed to stand a bit farther apart from one another, at least for much of the briefing.

But the briefing still had its more bizarre moments. Trump at one point asked Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator of the Coronavirus Task Force, whether the White House briefing room would ever again be full of “very angry” reporters. 

Birx didn’t take the bait, instead answering in general terms that “we’re learning a lot about social distancing and respiratory diseases.”

Fauci’s venting about Trump has led to concerns about his job security in some quarters, though others note that the president is aware of the veteran scientist’s credibility and his critical role in combating the virus, which is the biggest crisis by far of the Trump presidency. Fauci has become the most prominent public face of the crisis from within the medical community.

Still, the fact that Fauci is in such direct tension with Trump’s views is striking, especially to those who know the president or have served in his administration.

“One of the problems going on right now is, it’s one thing if you are dealing with something subjective or someone’s feelings, if you go to the microphone and yell, ‘Fake News’. But it’s another thing to go and yell, ‘Face Science!’,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served a short-lived stint as White House communications director in 2017 and has more recently become a strong Trump critic.

Scaramucci, a successful investor, said that Trump’s claims had contributed to stock market losses because they had “spooked” the financial world. As to the claims related to science and health, he added, “He can say 2 + 2 = 7, but thankfully we have Dr. Faucis in the world who can say that isn’t true.”

There have been suggestions from some quarters that the briefings could be moved out of the White House — perhaps to a medical or scientific setting — and could be led by scientists rather than Trump. 

A New York Times story on Sunday cited the parallel of military officers giving wartime briefings, as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf did during the 1991 Gulf War. 

One potential advantage to this approach would be that medical officials would be less inclined to get into rows with reporters.

A media furor erupted at the White House on Friday when the president branded Peter Alexander of NBC News a “terrible reporter” after Alexander asked about Trump’s message to Americans who are feeling scared. 

Alexander’s question seemed clearly legitimate. But some observers say they have seen other moments when reporters have sought to create viral moments for their own ends. 

“The press briefings tend to bring out the worst from both sides — the media and the White House,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. 

“Much of the press has been asking reasonable questions, but every once in a while someone wants to make their bones and see if they can be the one to set Trump off or to make a star out of themselves.”

A further twist was added to the dynamics of the briefing on Monday afternoon when it was revealed that an unnamed White House reporter was suffering from a “suspected case of COVID-19.” The information came in an email from Jon Karl of ABC News, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

For good or for ill, however, no one believes that Trump is about to move aside from the podium — or change his tone from it — anytime soon. 

That is especially unlikely while he runs the risk of being eclipsed by any of the health experts.

“There are three death knells in the Trump administration: ‘You are getting more famous than me,’ or the media are referring to you as ‘the real president,’ or ‘We have another television star on the stage,’” said Scaramucci. “He doesn’t like any of those.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency

Tags Anthony Scaramucci Coronavirus Donald Trump
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