White House shifts messaging strategy on coronavirus

The White House on Monday signaled it is changing the way it will handle messaging on its response to the coronavirus amid growing GOP fears that President Trump is hurting his party’s chances in this fall’s elections with his daily White House briefings on the pandemic.

Advisers have urged Trump to scale back his presence at the briefings, which the president often uses to air political grievances and make inaccurate statements. Officials familiar with discussions said there is an effort to get Trump to focus his messaging on the economy while leaving public health experts to discuss the pandemic.

In a sign of the uncertainty around the new strategy, the White House initially canceled the coronavirus task force briefing scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying Trump would instead hold a press availability at a meeting with industry executives earlier in the day. But a few hours later, a press conference with Trump and Vice President Pence was scheduled for 5 p.m. in the Rose Garden.

McEnany on Monday disputed that there was an effort to cut back on the task force briefings, but suggested they may not happen daily and acknowledged they might have a “different look” and “different focus.”

“I would not read into that anything that we see them as negative, because in fact we think that they have been a very positive, helpful opportunity for the president to speak to the American people,” McEnany told reporters at the White House.

“We’re in a phase of looking to reopening the country, and with that the president will be focusing a lot on the economy,” she added.

Two officials close to the White House said the best format for putting Trump front and center was still under discussion. One official suggested the president could go out and read a prepared statement on virus updates and the economic recovery and then leave to allow public health experts to field questions from the press.

Another adviser said the briefings need more “structure” and data to reflect day-to-day progress. Trump has typically delivered a scripted opening statement that’s heavy on praise for the number of masks, gloves or gowns his administration has secured before veering into more combative and often off-topic question-and-answer sessions.

Trump may also resume travel outside D.C. in the coming weeks, following trips made by Pence to meet factory workers in Wisconsin and Minnesota who are central to the pandemic response. Similar photo ops would allow Trump to highlight plans for an economic revival in swing states as he seeks to reset his campaign messaging.

Over the past week, Trump has participated in more events that have been open to the White House press pool, including Friday’s Oval Office signing of a $484 billion coronavirus relief package and a meeting with NASA officials the same day.

The coronavirus briefings began in earnest in late February and the president has made himself the centerpiece of the on-camera availabilities, which have been held almost daily since mid-March.

Trump enjoyed an initial polling boost when he began participating in the press briefings. But the benefit has worn off, with recent surveys showing a dip in his approval rating and finding that most Americans trust their governors and administration health officials more than the president.

His performance may also be hurting vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in November. Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.), Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Susan Collins (Maine) were all outraised by their Democratic rivals in the first quarter of 2020.

Trump has embraced the briefings as a way to deliver his message to the American public and counter what he considers to be biased media. However, he has come under widespread scrutiny after suggesting on Thursday that health officials should look into whether exposing the body to light or injecting it with disinfectant could be an effective coronavirus treatment.

While Trump was prone to making misleading and controversial statements from the podium earlier on in the crisis, his comments about disinfectants were so widely mocked and seized on that it appeared to serve as a turning point even for the president.

Trump signaled over the weekend that he would scale back the briefings, questioning their purpose while accusing the media of refusing to “report the truths or facts accurately.”

One former White House official said Trump would benefit from keeping his appearances shorter rather than allowing the briefings to extend to two hours, as some have, noting his unpredictability when the cameras are rolling. But the former official also suggested it could be damaging if the White House were to curtail Trump’s appearances in a way that would give former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, more latitude to reach the public.

“They risk letting Biden more into the debate,” the former official said. “They need to find a happy medium.”

Trump’s remarks on disinfectants last week, which he later attributed to sarcasm, were met with immediate pushback from the health community and seized on by Democrats. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Sunday that Trump needed to be more careful with what he says at news conferences, noting Maryland was forced to issue a warning to citizens not to ingest disinfectant products.

“This has been important to me from day one about communicating very clearly on the facts, because people listen to these press conferences,” Hogan told ABC News. “I think when misinformation comes out or you just say something that pops in your head, it does send a wrong message.”

Deborah Birx, a doctor who is coordinating the federal government’s response to COVID-19, defended the president when pressed over the weekend about his remarks on disinfectants, saying the focus on Trump’s comments was having an adverse affect. 

“As a scientist and a public health official and a researcher, sometimes I worry that we don’t get the information to the American people that they need, when we continue to bring up something that was from Thursday night,” Birx said on CNN.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 1 million people in the U.S. and has killed more than 55,000. The president has faced intense criticism for downplaying the virus early on and for his positive assessment of the administration’s work on testing and the production of personal protective gear, even as state leaders warn that the federal government isn’t doing enough on either front.

Scaling back the briefings will not eliminate the chance that Trump could say something that invites scrutiny. It was during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that he pledged “anybody that wants a test can get a test.” And at a meeting with African American leaders, he said the virus would disappear “like a miracle.”

In the absence of briefings over the weekend, Trump took to Twitter to lash out repeatedly at the media.

Pence led the briefings in early March for about a week, garnering attention as head of the federal response to the coronavirus before the president asserted himself in mid-March and did not relinquish his leading role for six weeks.

Trump has long shown an aversion to officials within his administration who get more media attention than him. He may struggle to remain on the sidelines if Pence or health officials become the public face of the pandemic response.

“It’s remarkable how little Trump has changed throughout this crisis,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 campaign. “There’s been very little attempt to reach out to voters who didn’t vote for him. The message continues to be rather undisciplined, and it’s all typical Trump.”

Tags Coronavirus Cory Gardner COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Marco Rubio Martha McSally Mike Pence Pandemic press briefings press conference Susan Collins White House coronavirus task force

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