Enough!” President Trump admonished CNN’s Kaitlan Collins as she pressed for answers during Monday’s contentious coronavirus briefing. With daily feuding between Trump and media boiling over, stressed Americans should be forgiven if they, too, have had enough.
The president clearly relishes the briefings and the opportunity they provide for him to communicate directly with an audience eager for answers. Many, including Wall Street Journal editorial writers, have criticized the choreography, with its lengthy monologues about the administration’s accomplishments.
Then came Monday. The president doubled down, as pundits would put it, by running a campaign-style video produced by White House staff, designed to defend Trump’s handling of the crisis.
It was bad theater, and bad form.
Worse, it was the type of thing that can’t possibly help the president achieve any of his goals: ending the pandemic, restoring the economy and winning re-election.
Here’s the timeline, to use another term favored in this soap opera. On April 8 the Journal hit a nerve with an editorial noting, “Mr. Trump seems to have concluded that the briefings could be a showcase for him.” Within hours a presidential tweet responded with the favorite expression, “Fake News!” On April 11, the New York Times published a lengthy report detailing the administration’s slow, or at least uneven, response to the coronavirus outbreak. Similar stories appeared in the Washington Post and via the Associated Press. On April 12, Dr. Anthony Fauci, lead medical adviser on the coronavirus task force, was interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper and was obliged to concede the obvious: Earlier mitigation against the virus could have saved lives. He added that there was “pushback” against such mitigation. Within hours the president retweeted criticism of Dr. Fauci that closed with, “Time to #FireFauci.”
It was against that background that Trump decided to treat the White House press corps and viewers of multiple TV outlets to his video mash-up. CNN and MSNBC cut away during part of it. After rejoining, CNN’s on-screen summaries included, “Angry Trump turns briefing into propaganda session” and “Trump melts down …”
The president baited the press, and they gobbled it up. Meanwhile, serious debate continues in television newsrooms about whether to carry the briefings live. Having spent the first years of my career in ABC’s New York newsroom I can state with certainty that there is no more difficult decision than whether to grant airtime to a president — and when to pull the plug.
Maybe in the multi-platform age there is no reason for so many outlets to carry the briefings. Yet, if I were a news executive I would opt to carry all of it during a national emergency — but not if it contains blatant campaign videos. And, as a viewer, I want to watch all of it, even as the sparring between the president and press becomes almost insufferable.
The sad irony here is that the administration and state governors from both parties — along with many business leaders — have succeeded, for the most part, in putting differences aside for the good of the nation. Why can’t the president do the same in dealing with the White House press corps?
At one point in Monday’s briefing the president said to Paula Reid of CBS: “Right now, nearly 20 million people are unemployed, and tens of thousands of Americans are dead. How is this … supposed to make people feel confident in an unprecedented crisis?”
Exactly, Mister President. Start repairing and refocusing these briefings. Enough is enough.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.