The president said he would resume the pandemic briefings that he called off in April, a tacit acknowledgment that the public health crisis he had hoped to put behind him was still ravaging much of the country.
By the time he cancelled the show midseason, even President Donald Trump had grown weary of his televised coronavirus briefings. Angry at the reviews, he declared the briefings "not worth the time & effort," a conclusion shared by his own advisers and allies who had come to see them as hurting more than helping.
But while the freewheeling sessions with their cascades of misinformation and petty outbursts had become self-destructive, nothing else has taken their place as a way for Trump to get his message out given his lack of success reviving his favorite campaign rallies. And so, the president said on Monday that he was bringing back the virus briefings nearly two months after calling them off.
The decision to resume the briefings amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that the public health crisis that Trump has sought to put behind him is still ravaging much of the country as he heads toward a fall election season trailing badly in the polls. With new infections, hospitalisations and now deaths on the rise, especially in the South and West, it has become increasingly difficult for the president to simply shrug off the outbreaks as mere "embers" that can be easily smothered.
Even so, as he opted to focus renewed presidential time to discussing the pandemic with the public again amid concern from Republicans that he was not taking it seriously enough, Trump, a former reality television star, attributed the move not to the increasing threat of the virus but to the fact that the briefings had garnered high television ratings.
"I was doing them and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching in the history of cable television. There's never been anything like it," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "It's a great way to get information out to the public as to where we are with the vaccines, with the therapeutics."
He was right about the ratings — his briefings were attracting an average audience around 8.5 million, or roughly the equivalent of the season finale of "The Bachelor" — and he said he would probably start again on Tuesday at 5pm, the same hour as before because it would attract viewers. "We had a good slot," he said.
The briefings could in effect serve as a substitute for the campaign rallies that Trump tried to restart. His first attempt fizzled when he filled only a third of an arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and his second — set for Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was scrubbed amid concerns that it too would not draw many people, although the campaign cited the weather as the proximate reason for cancelling. That one was never rescheduled, even though the campaign said it would be, nor have any other rallies been announced.
Trump's aides have grown increasingly uncertain about how to communicate his message on the spread of the virus against the reality of a president who has shown almost no ability to stay focused during the course of scheduled events. For weeks, some Trump advisers have said the White House needs to do more to brief the public on the rise in hospitalisations and deaths.
But the idea of resuming the briefings became another dispute in the eternal turf wars within the Trump team. Two of his closest advisers, Jared Kushner and Hope Hicks, had been fine with the administration conducting virus briefings so long as they were not at the White House complex where Trump might want to join them. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, has preferred not drawing attention to the virus at all.
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But Kellyanne Conway, the president's counsellor, publicly said that the president's poll numbers were better when he was doing the briefings and that she hoped he would again. Vice President Mike Pence's team has also wanted him to do more, but the president's communications aides bristled at the vice president appearing at them when they thought Trump should be leading the effort. By the end of last week, Kushner and Hicks were rethinking their concerns, according to people familiar with the discussions.
"The pandemic is the No. 1 topic of conversation around family dinner tables and Zoom conversations, so the president is smart to ensure his message is getting into those discussions," said Cliff Sims, a former White House media aide under Trump. "If we learned anything during the 2016 campaign and in the White House, it's that he's always his own best messenger and our ability to shape the debate is always bolstered by having him out front."
But Democrats scoffed at the notion that the president would handle the briefings any better this time around. "It's pretty clear that the resumption of briefings is more about Trump feeding his own ego, in an absence of other forums, and sharing his own distorted version of history directly with his base than it is about sharing fact-based updates with the American public," said Jen Psaki, a White House communications director under President Barack Obama.
The original coronavirus briefings from March to April were made-for-television events, with scientific information provided by public health experts often overshadowed by a confrontational president castigating governors, lawmakers, China, reporters and others he deemed insufficiently grateful to him for his leadership. He used them to defend his administration's response to the virus and to promote a pet drug as a possible treatment over the advice of his own experts.
Trump eventually quit holding them after he was widely mocked for suggesting that people might be able to counter the virus by ingesting or injecting disinfectants like bleach, an offhand comment that sent public health agencies scrambling to warn the public not to try such an approach because it could be fatal.
But in recent weeks, the surge of cases has frustrated Trump's effort to play down the seriousness of the continuing pandemic. The United States now records more than twice as many cases each day as it did during the height of the daily briefings, and the number of deaths, which had fallen substantially, has begun to rise again as well.
White House officials have said in recent days both that the president is too busy to attend coronavirus task force meetings and that he is "working around the clock" on the virus. But even as hospitals fill up and governors reverse decisions to reopen, Trump has continued to insist that the virus would simply vanish on its own.
In his comments Monday, he was a little less dismissive. "Frankly, a lot of the country is doing well — a lot of the people don't say it, as you understand," he said. "But we've have had this big flare-up in Florida, Texas, a couple of other places. And so I think what we're going to do is I'll get involved and we'll start doing briefings."
Written by: Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman
Photographs by: Doug Mills
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES