President Trump was back in front of the cameras on Tuesday to brief the nation on the state of the US coronavirus response for the first time in weeks.
“The China virus is vicious and dangerous. We have learned a great deal about it and who it targets,” he said. “We’re in the process of developing a strategy that is going to be very, very powerful.”
It was a chance for the president to present his own narrative after the wave of negative news headlines about rising Covid-19 cases and deaths. And it became a showcase for the new, more somber tone that the White House wants to present to the public, a reflection of sustained anxiety over the pandemic and public dissatisfaction with the federal response.
As Tuesday’s press conference showed, however, Trump struggles to fully abandon inflammatory rhetoric even when reading from a script and showing more deference than usual to expert opinion. For starters, he still insists on calling SARS-Cov-2 “the China virus.”
This has become routine in the Trump era: The White House wants to refute with the prevailing media narrative while simultaneously trying to elicit positive news coverage with a grounded and somber perspective. But Trump, hyperbolic and confrontational by nature, makes it difficult to sustain any change.
The media has made real mistakes in its Covid-19 coverage. But most of the public health experts and scholars on presidential leadership I’ve spoken to consider Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to be deeply flawed. Among his shortcomings are an established pattern of hype, spin, and misinformation.
“We are witnessing what happens in the absence of a coherent federal leadership that puts public health first,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.
Raj Pillai, who has written on presidential leadership and rhetoric during crises, told me on Monday: “I am almost afraid that the briefings are about to restart.”
If Trump can stick the facts and provide accurate information on the pandemic to the American people, better late than never. But he has given the public plenty of reasons to doubt he can maintain any change in tone.
A worsening pandemic forced Trump to start the coronavirus briefings again
The facts on the ground are dire. New Covid-19 cases have been climbing steadily for more than a month. The daily new case count had dipped below 20,000 in early June, but, over the last few days, it has reached nearly 80,000. Hospitalizations have matched their spring peak, with about 60,000 Americans currently in a hospital with the coronavirus. And now deaths are rising again, too, surpassing 1,000 in one day this week for the first time since May.
In a matter of days, there will be more than 4 million confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States. More than 142,000 Americans have died in the pandemic. Every curve is trending in the wrong direction.
The White House had been trying to brush away concerns of a coronavirus resurgence as unwarranted media hype. About a month ago, Vice President Mike Pence declared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” His argument ignored the early data indicators that Covid-19 was surging again and now the US is enduring the worst stretch of the pandemic since the outbreak exploded in New York City in April.
That was inconvenient for the Trump administration. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, the White House has been striving since the spring to shift responsibility for the pandemic response from the federal government to the states. They wanted to depict themselves as having done enough to support the states and turn their focus instead to an economic recovery ahead of the November election.
But the virus is still spreading, and more people are getting infected, ending up in the hospital or dying. Meanwhile, shortcomings in the federal response have become more evident. While the country’s testing capacity has increased a lot since March, there are still sticking points in the supply chain. In some places, it can take more than a week to get test results. That renders them useless for the purposes of contact tracing, the process of identifying people who have been potentially exposed to Covid and asking them to isolate themselves. That strategy is how other countries have staved off new outbreaks, but the US has so far failed to build an adequate test-trace-isolate program.
A week ago, Trump’s former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the backlogs in America’s coronavirus testing were “inexcusable.” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, wrote a Washington Post op-ed excoriating the Trump administration’s response:
I’d watched as the president downplayed the outbreak’s severity and as the White House failed to issue public warnings, draw up a 50-state strategy, or dispatch medical gear or lifesaving ventilators from the national stockpile to American hospitals. Eventually, it was clear that waiting around for the president to run the nation’s response was hopeless; if we delayed any longer, we’d be condemning more of our citizens to suffering and death. So every governor went their own way, which is how the United States ended up with such a patchwork response.
Surveys indicate the American public is equally dissatisfied with Trump’s performance in containing the outbreak. And he’s fallen far behind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2020 election polling.
With frequent headlines about Covid-19’s resurgence and, in recent days, about the White House’s spin campaign against top government scientists, Trump’s plan to ignore Covid-19 was no longer palatable.
“The press briefings are simply the White House offering the American people a counter-narrative to that offered by the mainstream media now that we see an increase in cases,” says Jim Kuypers, a Virginia Tech communications professor who has written books on presidential rhetoric and the news media, “and also to bring up facts that are omitted or overlooked by the mainstream media in its coverage of the pandemic, facts that might help the White House.”
Is Trump changing anything about his approach?
Before Trump took the podium to brief the nation again on Tuesday, risk communications consultant Peter Sandman told me the first thing Trump should do is acknowledge that everybody in the country is struggling right now. And that was, more or less, the message from the president as he opened his remarks on Tuesday.
“It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” Trump said. “Something I don’t like saying about things but that’s the way it is.”
For Trump, who has described himself as a cheerleader for the country to justify his relentless optimism about Covid-19 even as the bad news piled up, that was a significant allowance. And it came the day after he had made his most forceful endorsement of mask-wearing, tweeting a picture of himself with a mask on, after previously sounding skeptical of their usefulness. In the parlance of Washington political reporters, this sounds like a pivot from the president.
We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President! pic.twitter.com/iQOd1whktN
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2020
And from a crisis communications standpoint, there is an argument to be made that it’s better for the president to start taking the coronavirus more seriously at this late date than never at all. It may not win him many converts among the media or skeptical voters, and there will surely be some people in his base miffed by any perceived concessions to his critics. But it may also reassure people who are usually inclined to support him but have been frustrated by his administration’s lax coronavirus response.
“I absolutely think better late than never,” Sandman said. “I suspect a lot of his base would be relieved. They’re almost as worried about Covid-19 as their anti-Trump neighbors, and they’d welcome the chance to stop feeling that supporting the president means they have to shrug off the pandemic.”
Trump is also going to use these briefings to portray the country as on the verge of overcoming the coronavirus. And while the grim reality of rising deaths and rising cases can’t be ignored, there is some good news to tell and Trump highlighted as many positive points as he could during Tuesday’s briefing.
Doctors have identified therapies (remdesivir, dexamethasone) and treatment protocols (putting patients in a “prone” position, chest down, when they are on a ventilator) that can lead to better outcomes. So far, people who end up hospitalized in this latest Covid surge are not dying as frequently as hospitalized patients were earlier in the pandemic. Looking ahead, several vaccine candidates have shown promising results in their early trials, though the most important tests on efficacy are still to come.
But the US response is still inadequate. The testing backlogs are a serious hinderance to America’s ability to track the virus’s spread and contain new outbreaks. Most states and cities have still not been able to hire enough people to do contact tracing, and the White House is reportedly skeptical of allocating more federal funding for those programs.
And Trump still wasn’t playing it straight with all of his facts at Tuesday’s briefing. He boasted that the US is doing more Covid testing than the European Union, but the scale of America’s outbreak is much worse than most of Europe at this point. Going by the positive test rate — a good proxy for whether a country is performing enough testing relative to its outbreak; lower is better — the US is still struggling, with a positive test rate over 8 percent. Most European countries are below 4 percent, which is the range that reflects adequate testing according to experts.
The White House briefings could better inform the public, or they could become a venue for Trump’s spin
This is the concern: that Trump will use these briefings not as a mea culpa and an opportunity to set the record straight with the American public on Covid-19, but to spin a fanciful narrative that obscures the country’s problems and serves primarily as campaign fodder ahead of voters’ decision on Trump’s reelection.
The fact that Trump appeared at the Tuesday briefing by himself, without any scientists flanking him, reinforced those fears.
“Although it is critical for a leader to communicate regularly during crisis (e.g., FDR’s fireside chats), the purpose has to be to inform, calm, and unite; to paint a realistic but achievable future and show the way,” Rajnandini Pillai, a management professor who specializes in leadership at California State University San Marcos, told me. “I am afraid that his briefings may do more harm than good because this president is intent on marketing breathtaking falsehoods to serve his reelection aims.”
The media has made its share of mistakes in its Covid-19 coverage. Recode’s Peter Kafka covered them well. Early news reporting failed to convey the uncertainties of an emerging pathogen, and evolutions in the scientific understanding of the disease — such as on the efficacy of masks — may have added to public misconceptions about the pandemic and mistrust of scientists. The decision by many public health experts to endorse the protests over police violence, after warnings for months about the dangers of large gatherings, may also have sowed public skepticism. (Evidence suggests the protests — outdoors and with many in masks — may not have led to big spikes in cases.)
But news organizations have also stepped in where the federal government has abdicated its responsibility: in reporting on Covid-19 data, in conveying public health guidance, and in preparing the public for the likely long duration of this crisis. Trump, on the other hand, has used his platform to stoke racial animus, discredit experts and push unwarranted hype.
These briefings are undeniably a chance for him to strike a new tone. Maybe this time it will stick. At the briefing, a reporter asked Trump if he favored more federal money for testing, after the Post had reported the White House was opposed to allocating more funding in the next Covid-19 relief bill.
“If the doctors and the professionals feel that, even though we’re at a level that nobody ever dreamt possible, that they would like to do more, I’m okay with it,” Trump said.
All of the promise and peril of the briefings was revealed in that sentence. There was a deference to expert advice. But then there was also the hyperbole. That is, and always will be, the Trump experience.
But it was actually another recurring rhetorical flourish in Trump’s remarks that left me skeptical the president has really found a new tone. Scientists have been trying for years to move away from the old habit of identifying a disease by its place of origin.
Too often, such rhetoric has been used to vilify and ostracize non-white people. While administration officials and allies have frequently referred to the coronavirus as the Chinese virus or the Wuhan virus or even the more overtly racist “kung flu,” Asian Americans have been the targets of discrimination during the pandemic, And the president is clearly leaning into dog whistles targeting white Americans as his best hope for reelection.
So maybe it shouldn’t be any surprise that three times in the first few minutes of the briefing, reading from his prepared text, Trump referred to Covid-19 as “the China virus.”
That has always been the strategy. So, in at least one regard, the tone was not really much different at all. This is who Trump is.
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