Trump coronavirus briefings put health officials in bind
Health experts on the White House coronavirus task force increasingly are being put in a tough spot by the president’s daily press briefings.
President Trump frequently uses the briefings to settle scores with the media, and his efforts to put a positive spin on the news and his administration’s actions has led him to embrace ideas that lack scientific backing.
He then sometimes asks the scientists and doctors around him to weigh in or offer support, putting them in an impossible spot.
It’s been an issue throughout the timeline of the briefings, but it has particularly been under a spotlight this week.
Trump on Wednesday urged Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to publicly denounce a Washington Post headline even though Redfield acknowledged he was quoted correctly in the story saying a second wave of coronavirus could prove more difficult for the country.
On Thursday, Trump publicly disagreed with Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, saying he felt the nation’s testing capacity was adequate after the physician said hours earlier that the country needed to “significantly ramp up” its capabilities.
Trump separately on Thursday asked a visibly uneasy Deborah Birx to weigh in on the concept of injecting coronavirus patients with disinfectant or exposing them to ultraviolet light, forcing her to gently explain that she had never heard of such a regimen being used to treat coronavirus.
“I’m not a doctor. But I’m like a person that has a good you-know-what,” Trump said Thursday, gesturing to his head.
The remarks were widely refuted and mocked before the White House issued a statement clarifying that Trump has urged Americans to ask their doctors about treatment, and Trump later insisted he was being sarcastic.
Birx also came under some criticism from media figures for not more forcefully pushing back on the president. Throughout Friday, video of her looking uncomfortable as Trump spoke played on cable news. On social media, one account used “Curb Your Enthusiasm” familiar theme as a score for the moment as the camera zoomed in on the coronavirus task force leader.
The moment underscored how the briefings have proven to be minefields for the administration’s medical experts as they attempt to deliver data-driven information about the virus without angering the president.
The task has only gotten more difficult as Trump pushes for some states to consider lifting their restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus in favor of boosting the economy.
After Trump said Tuesday he would defer to the governor of Georgia’s decision to reopen businesses like salons and tattoo parlors, Birx said she wouldn’t “prejudge” the decision even though it did not comply with the White House guidelines on lifting restrictions.
But Trump reversed course the next day and said he disagreed with the governor’s plan, an indication that the health experts had gotten through to him behind closed doors.
Officials close to the administration and medical experts have sympathized with Birx and Fauci, noting that the doctors need to retain Trump’s trust so the president will heed their advice.
Public health officials have largely been relegated to the sidelines of the briefings, with Trump typically speaking and fielding questions for close to an hour and others speaking for a fraction of the time.
Fauci described them as “draining” in a recent interview with The Associated Press, saying it would be easier if he could answer a few questions and then leave.
Neither Fauci nor Birx appeared at Friday’s briefing, which abruptly ended after 21 minutes when Trump stalked out of the room without taking questions for the first time in weeks.
Some conservatives and those close to the White House acknowledged the briefings are politically perilous for the president. He often veers into fights with reporters or launches barbs at his political opponents at briefings ostensibly meant to inform the public about a deadly virus. His Thursday comments about disinfectants led to 24 hours of negative headlines, making clear the issue with his unscripted style.
The president has led the briefings almost every day since mid-March. He enjoyed an initial bump in polling as Americans rallied around the government response to the pandemic, with a Gallup Poll on March 24 showing Trump matching his highest approval rating at 49 percent.
But as the briefings have become daily theater, the political benefit has faded. The most recent Gallup poll showed Trump’s approval rating has sunk back to 43 percent, more in line with the rest of his first term.
“There’s definitely value in doing it, but he just doesn’t need to do it all the time,” Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign communications director, said of the briefings.
“I think President Trump should do them if he has something to announce, but if it’s just a check-in then I would defer to Vice President Pence or other members of his task force,” added Miller, who co-hosts a radio show focused on the pandemic.
Some of the president’s allies see few issues with how he conducts himself at the briefings, which give him a direct line to the public and appeal to his base supporters. They believe he has shown a willingness to listen to his medical team by extending social distancing guidelines and rolling out a phased-in approach to reopening the economy.
“My folks in Missouri love hearing from the president every day. They tune in daily,” Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), a member of the GOP leadership team, told The Hill on Friday.
Trump has described himself as a “cheerleader” for the country when asked about why he downplayed the virus in January or played up unproven treatments.
But Trump might eventually have to reckon with the consequences of his free-wheeling medical commentary, even as his experts try to massage his off-the-cuff remarks.
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration recommended against using the drug outside of hospital settings or clinical trials due to the risk of heart problems. Meanwhile, The Maryland Emergency Management Agency said it had received “several calls regarding questions about disinfectant use and #COVID19.”
“This is a reminder that under no circumstances should any disinfectant product be administered into the body through injection, ingestion or any other route,” the agency tweeted.
Scott Wong contributed.