Health experts pushed to side at Trump briefings
Top public health officials have been pushed to the background at President Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings this week.
As the number of cases and deaths from the virus in the U.S. mounts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have been less visible during what have increasingly become Trump-centric briefings in prime time.
Trump spoke roughly 14,000 words over the first hour and 45 minutes of Monday’s nearly 2 1/2 hour briefing before he left the room.
Trump invited Fauci to speak at the start of the briefing so he could put to rest talk about a divide between the president and top health experts on social distancing recommendations, but he only spoke a total of 1,829 words, according to Factbase, which archives all of the president’s public comments.
Birx, the coordinator of the White House virus response, spoke 2,040 words and did not step to the podium until more than 90 minutes into the briefing.
During Tuesday’s briefing in the Rose Garden, neither of the public health experts spoke, and Fauci was not in attendance. At the briefing, Trump announced he would suspend funding to the World Health Organization as the administration pursues an investigation into what he described as the global health body’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.
The developments underscore the extent to which Trump has put himself at the forefront of his administration’s response to the virus, which some argue has come at the expense of delivering clear public health information about the pandemic.
“These briefings that are supposed to be about the pandemic and what’s being done to protect the American people. … He’s now hijacked them to become a stream of consciousness for whatever he wants to talk about,” said Dave Lapan, a former press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration.
Some communications experts say that Trump is served well politically by the briefings regardless of whether public health officials are seen as taking a supporting role.
“This is what he does. This is his game,” said Eric Dezenhall, a prominent crisis communications consultant in Washington, D.C. “The net effect is the same it was during the election. Everything he does rallies his supporters and makes his opponent apoplectic.”
Trump fielded his first questions in the White House briefing room at the end of February and has made near daily appearances in the weeks since. The president enjoyed an initial bump in his approval ratings as more Americans rallied around him during the crisis, but they have since settled back into the low- and mid-40 percent range.
Trump typically delivers prepared remarks at the outset touting his administration’s response to the global pandemic, and then fields questions before leaving early, creating the feeling of a two-part briefing that has Vice President Pence and health experts speaking later on. Pence and the health experts in some cases don’t take center stage until well after 7 p.m. on the East Coast, at which point some cable networks have cut away.
On some occasions, Trump has brought in other administration guests, like he did with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Wednesday, to deliver their own announcements at the top of the briefing and take some questions.
On Friday, Trump stayed for the entire briefing and allowed health officials to speak in turns before fielding questions from the media. But the president spoke markedly more than did health officials during the more than two-hour appearance, uttering more than seven times the number of words of Birx, who was the second most frequent individual speaker during the briefing.
Trump’s presence can further muddle the public health messaging given his penchant for getting off topic and reporters’ desire to get the president’s thoughts on news of the day.
At recent coronavirus briefings, Trump launched into a tangent about why former President Obama had yet to endorse Joe Biden, complained at length about The New York Times, and was asked whether he was considering a pardon for the central figure in the Netflix docu-series “Tiger King.”
Critics have likened the president’s often combative tone and free-wheeling style at the briefings to his campaign rallies, which have been paused during the pandemic.
The president’s allies dismissed the comparison, pointing to Trump’s own comments that the briefings are difficult for him given the grim subject matter. Instead, they see the daily appearances as a chance for the president both to be viewed as the face of the government response in a time of crisis and to get his message out directly through the airwaves.
“It does allow people to see what he’s saying directly without any filter. It allows people to make their own judgments on what he’s saying,” said one former administration official. “I think the American people are capable of that and don’t need a media filter to do that for them.”
Fauci, Birx and other health officials have participated regularly in interviews with cable news programs and other forms of media, offering them a chance to speak to audiences about the health issues and social distancing measures in a different atmosphere than the briefing.
Dezenhall argued that health official’s limited remarks at briefings wouldn’t become a problem for Trump unless he were to sideline Fauci entirely by removing him — something that was the subject of rumor earlier this week but that the White House ruled out.
“I think that the worst thing he could do is fire Fauci, because one of the things that people look for in health-related crises is they look for their family doctor. That’s who he is,” Dezenhall said. “The fact that he has a lower profile one day versus another day, that’s minor. But I don’t think you can lose him from the mix entirely.”