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13 hours of Trump: The president fills briefings with attacks and boasts, but little empathy

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-04-26 Philip Bump, Ashley Parker
Donald Trump, Mike Pence looking at a screen: President Trump speaks Thursday during a coronavirus task force news conference at the White House. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump speaks Thursday during a coronavirus task force news conference at the White House.

President Trump strode to the lectern in the White House briefing room Thursday and, for just over an hour, attacked his rivals, dismissing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as a “sleepy guy in a basement of a house” and lambasting the media as “fake news” and “lamestream.”

He showered praise on himself and his team, repeatedly touting the “great job” they were doing as he spoke of the “tremendous progress” being made toward a vaccine and how “phenomenally” the nation was faring in terms of mortality.

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What he did not do was offer any sympathy for the 2,081 Americans who were reported dead from the coronavirus on that day alone — among nearly 53,000 Americans who have perished since the pandemic began. 

What began as daily briefings meant to convey public health information have become de facto political rallies conducted from the West Wing of the White House. Trump offers little in the way of accurate medical information or empathy for coronavirus victims, instead focusing on attacking his enemies and lauding himself and his allies.

The president has spoken for more than 28 hours in the 35 briefings held since March 16, eating up 60 percent of the time that officials spoke, according to a Washington Post analysis of annotated transcripts from Factba.se, a data analytics company.

Over the past three weeks, the tally comes to more than 13 hours of Trump — including two hours spent on attacks and 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, but just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victims. He spent twice as much time promoting an unproven antimalarial drug that was the object of a Food and Drug Administration warning Friday. Trump also said something false or misleading in nearly a quarter of his prepared comments or answers to questions, the analysis shows.

Trump’s freewheeling approach ended in a political crisis this past week, after the president’s dangerous suggestion at a briefing Thursday that injecting bleach or other disinfectants might cure the coronavirus — “almost as a cleaning.” The remarks set off a government-wide scramble and led to Trump telling aides Friday he would skip briefings this weekend. White House officials say privately they are considering scaling back the events entirely.

“What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately,” Trump complained in a tweet Saturday. “They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News. Not worth the time & effort!”

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Trump in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday.

The briefings have come to replace Trump’s “Keep America Great” campaign rallies — now on pause during the global contagion — and fulfill the president’s needs and impulses in the way his arena-shaking campaign events once did: a chance for him to riff, free-associate, spar with the media and occupy center stage.

The Post analysis of Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings over the past three weeks — from Monday, April 6 to Friday, April 24 — reveals a president using the White House lectern to vent and rage; to dispense dubious and even dangerous medical advice; and to lavish praise upon himself and his government.

Trump has attacked someone in 113 out of 346 questions he has answered — or a third of his responses. He has offered false or misleading information in nearly 25 percent of his remarks. And he has played videos praising himself and his administration’s efforts three times, including one that was widely derided as campaign propaganda produced by White House aides at taxpayer expense.

The president repeatedly returns to the same topics, frequently treating questions as cues for familiar talking points.

He has, for instance, mentioned the nation’s testing capacity in 14 percent of his comments, talked about the country’s ventilator supply in 12 percent and waxed on about his imposition of travel bans — particularly from China — in 9 percent.

“These press conferences are 10 minutes of information, if you’re lucky, and an hour and a half of self-congratulations and misinformation,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, which supports Biden. “It is the distillation of a Trump rally. It is the personification of a Trump rally.”

a group of people in a room: President Trump, flanked by Vice President Pence, addresses Thursday’s coronavirus news conference at the White House. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump, flanked by Vice President Pence, addresses Thursday’s coronavirus news conference at the White House.

Vice President Pence, who heads the administration’s coronavirus task force, holds second place in speaking time at the briefings since mid-March — about 5½ hours, or roughly 12 percent of the total.

The medical professionals also received significantly less airtime than Trump. Deborah Birx, who oversees the administration’s virus response, spoke close to six hours, while Anthony S. Fauci, an infectious disease expert, spoke for just over two hours at 22 of the briefings.

Trump has also offered a response to a question posed to someone else more than a third of the time that occurred, including queries that the intended official had already answered.

Expressions of empathy from Trump are rare. The president has mentioned coronavirus victims in just eight briefings in three weeks, mostly in prepared remarks. In the first week of April, when the nation’s focus was largely on the hard-hit New York region, Trump began several briefings by expressing his condolences for the victims there.

“We continue to send our prayers to the people of New York and New Jersey, and to our whole country,” Trump said on April 6, offering similar sentiments the following day: “We grieve alongside every family who has lost a precious loved one.”

Last Sunday — as the death toll in the United States climbed past 40,000 and more than 22 million Americans were unemployed — a CNN reporter sparked Trump’s ire when he noted the grim milestones and asked, “Is this really the time for self-congratulations?”

“What I’m doing is I’m standing up for the men and women that have done such an incredible job,” Trump responded. He added that he was “also sticking up for doctors and nurses and military doctors and nurses,” before eventually angrily dismissing the question as “fake news.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the briefings are a way for the president to keep the public informed. “Millions and millions of Americans tune in each day to hear directly from President Trump and appreciate his leadership, unprecedented coronavirus response, and confident outlook for America’s future,” McEnany said in a statement.

Like his campaign rallies, the president’s portion of the daily briefings are rife with misinformation. Over the past three weeks, 87 of his comments or answers — a full 47 minutes — included factually inaccurate comments.

Trump has mentioned the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a possible coronavirus cure in at least eight of his prepared remarks and responses, despite potentially dangerous side effects and no clear medical evidence that it helps treat the virus.

“Just recently, a friend of mine told me he got better because of the use of that — that drug. So, who knows?” said Trump in mid-April, adding, “And it’s having some very good results, I’ll tell you.”

After Trump’s comments on injecting disinfectants at the Thursday briefing, aides and other loyalists initially said the president’s remarks had been taken out of context. Then Trump claimed, despite his serious tone when making the suggestion, that he was just speaking “sarcastically” to get a rise out of the press.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Trump speaks alongside Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, at a task force briefing April 22. The president frequently answers questions addressed to other officials at the briefings. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Trump speaks alongside Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, at a task force briefing April 22. The president frequently answers questions addressed to other officials at the briefings.

Some administration officials, outside Republicans and other Trump allies say the briefings have increasingly become a distraction, and they fear they are doing more to harm than help the president’s reelection hopes. They worry that Trump is squandering the opportunity to demonstrate presidential leadership and be the “wartime president” he has claimed to be by picking petty fights and appearing childish and distracted.

But they also acknowledge they are unlikely to change Trump’s behavior. Over the past three weeks, the president has tweeted five times about the briefing’s “ratings,” which he frequently says are “through the roof.”

In recent days, aides have begun discussing adding an economic component to the virus response that would be separate from the daily briefing with public health officials, in part because they believe one of the president’s strengths is the economy. He might appear with executives of small businesses beginning to reopen or with manufacturers of personal protective equipment, a senior administration official said.

Advisers are also considering cutting the number of briefings or having the president attend less frequently, as well as discussing getting the president out on the road in the next few weeks.

Some Republicans see value in Trump’s regular appearances in the briefing room. Much like the 2016 campaign, where he seemed to benefit from being ubiquitous if controversial, the coronavirus news conferences offer Trump an elevated platform, especially in the absence of regular campaign events, said Cliff Sims, a former White House aide.

“Everybody in the country is talking about one thing, and it happens to be the one thing that Donald Trump is the dominant player in, and he’s leading that conversation,” Sims said. “Even visually, you still have Trump on your TV screen, in front of the White House logo in the briefing room, flanked by his advisers. And then you have Joe Biden very small on your computer screen, having a Zoom conversation with Al Gore.”

The most frequent target of Trump’s attacks during the briefings was Democrats (48 times, over roughly 30 minutes), including former president Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). His next-favorite subjects for criticism were the media (37 times, over roughly 25 minutes); the nation’s governors (34, over 22 minutes); and China (31 times, over nearly 21 minutes).

Much like his rallies — where Trump often harangues the media from the stage and encourages chants of “CNN sucks!” — he uses his briefings as an opportunity to spar with and berate the press.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Trump stands in front of a video presentation during the April 20 daily coronavirus press briefing. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Trump stands in front of a video presentation during the April 20 daily coronavirus press briefing.

On Thursday, when a Post reporter noted that people tuning into the briefings “want to get information and guidance and want to know what to do,” Trump turned his frustration on the reporter, whom he dismissed as “a total faker.”

“I’m the president and you’re fake news,” Trump said.

Cecil, the Democratic super PAC head, said his reaction was initially mixed when Trump began dominating the briefings. “You always have to be concerned when one side monopolizes so much of the coverage,” he said.

But Cecil said he thinks the daily routine will “ultimately hurt” Trump, especially as voters assess the president’s performance against their own suffering. His super PAC has already produced ads using Trump’s own words from the briefings against him and plans to continue doing so going forward.

“It’s much different to process these press conferences when the coverage before and after is the unprecedented number of people dying, the fact that we don’t have tests,” he said. “Long term it is hurting the president, because people can see with their own eyes and what they are feeling in their own communities what the consequences are.”

philip.bump@washpost.com

ashley.parker@washpost.com

Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.

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