I am hoping that recent events will make the reason for this post irrelevant. But I have my doubts. Despite efforts by his staff to persuade him to limit his appearances at daily press briefings, this President does not seem capable of surrendering the limelight.
In my April 8 post on this topic, I expressed some ambivalence about the idea that the press should no longer cover these briefings live at all.
It was never my belief that they needed to show the two-plus hour nightly events in their soul-sapping entirety, but I also wondered whether disbanding live coverage completely might be a bad precedent.
The approach that some were following seemed to be a good compromise: airing a portion and then cutting away, rather than dropping long-held norms just because he was slashing and burning them.
On Friday, I heard Eli Stokols, a White House reporter for the Los Angeles Times, say that covering this President raises profound problems for the press and is in fact, the central issue for them at this point.
I can imagine that most, if not all, members of the Fourth Estate are struggling to determine how to do their jobs when faced with the double whammy of a pandemic that requires them to deliver timely information to the public—and a President who lies, contradicts himself, insults them, and seems to care not one whit about anyone or anything but himself.
And then, as you know, this President offhandedly suggested that the scientists should look into the question of whether drinking or injecting disinfectants could be a possible treatment for the coronavirus.
For me, that was a moment of clarity.
He faced others on the podium as he raised what he apparently thought was a clever idea, and his scientific adviser, Dr. Deborah Birx, to her discredit, remained silent, eventually mumbling “not a treatment.” She wilted.
Stokols and his colleagues at the LA Times reacted with some thoughtful reporting and observations:
“A slew of federal and state agencies — and the makers of laundry bleach — issued an implicit rebuke to President Trump on Friday, warning the public that his off-the-cuff medical advice and off-the-wall musings in nightly White House briefings could endanger even more lives as the country’s coronavirus death toll passed 50,000…
“Trump’s inclination to view his rhetoric as fungible — his comments are often intentionally open-ended and then open to ex post facto dismissals — reflects a lifelong effort by a highly public figure to blur context and avoid consequences for his comments and actions.”
“Trump’s shifting and often self-contradictory comments are not a bug but a feature of his nightly briefings, where, even amid a profound national crisis and widespread anxiety, questions and specifics typically drown in a sea of self-lavished superlatives.
“Last week, he managed to flip-flop three times on how quickly to lift stay-at-home orders, first insisting that he had “total” authority to order states to reopen, then telling governors that they, not he, had that authority, and then urging citizens to protest decisions by the governors and “liberate” their states.
“When pressed Thursday as to why he continued to float untested and potentially dangerous remedies from the presidential podium, Trump lashed out at the reporter who questioned him.
“I’m the president and you’re fake news,” he said. “I’m just here to present talent. I’m here to present ideas, because we want ideas to get rid of this thing. And if heat is good and if sunlight is good, that’s a great thing as far as I’m concerned.”
The next day, the President falsely claimed that he was sarcastically responding to a hostile press query.
In the meantime, while all responsible parties have been trying to contain the pandemic, protect the public, and find scientifically sound ways to consider when it’s safe to lift the quarantine, Trump’s suggestion that internal disinfectants were worth considering caused consternation and warnings from many quarters.
So many people spent so much valuable time that should have been devoted to more worthy efforts as this gargantuan threat persists.
Those who raced to address this obvious danger ranged from the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the US Surgeon General to the American Chemistry Council to the makers of Chlorox and Lysol, among others.
And former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, exerting leadership from his basement, tweeted:
“I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach.”
Lest you think that Americans wouldn’t be foolish enough to consider such a ridiculous idea, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency reported that its emergency hotline received more than 100 inquiries about whether the injection or ingestion of disinfectants could be a cure for COVID-19.
Reading that, the noted Constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe tweeted:
“What worries me is how many DIDN’T call but just tried Trump’s insane experiment on themselves or their kids.”
On April 24, Congressman Adam Schiff tweeted:
“A week ago I asked whether it was responsible to carry Trump’s nightly stream of consciousness on live TV.
Today, he suggested drinking or injecting disinfectants or ‘sunlight’ to kill the virus.
So I will ask again: What value is there to this spectacle?”
There’s no longer any doubt in my mind. I fully agree with Adam Schiff. We have a President who is hazardous to our health. He needs to be quarantined—his every word fact-checked and accurately reported.
And it’s just as important that the press and cable TV programs stop allowing him to control the narrative. The public needs information.
That’s why they listen so intently when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks—or Maryland Governor Larry Hogan—or the mayors who have been thrown in disarray when the governors of their states have precipitously decided to disregard scientific caution and remove the quarantines.
We’re not getting information from these press conferences. We’re getting bad theater, farce-turned-deadly.
As many have pointed out, his wacky schemes often serve as a distraction: reporters must follow the story and not ask their questions about the climbing and undoubtedly underreported incidence of infection and death and—his protestations notwithstanding—the lack of adequate testing, largely because he refuses to exert power when he really must.
Here’s a possible example of what might have been reported immediately after Trump made his bizarre recommendation.
“President Trump suggested today that ingesting or injecting disinfectants might be a treatment for coronavirus. This is a dangerous suggestion that could prove lethal, as the makers of Chlorox and Lysol rushed to emphasize. We regret to report that you will endanger your health and possibly lose your life if you listen to the President.
“And now, here’s a report on the impact of the lifting of regulations to prevent water pollution in neighboring communities…” or “Here’s the latest on President Trump’s pressuring the United Kingdom to bail out his failing golf course in Scotland….” or “What will the implications be from the President’s recent temporary Executive Order halting the issuance of many new green cards?”
With his poll numbers plummeting, his staff is reportedly engaged in an effort to persuade him to shorten these dreadful marathons. That is, at least, a start. But we’ll see if they’re successful, and if so, for how long.
He’s not suitable for prime time.