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Trump team’s brewing debate: How to message a raging health emergency

POLITICO logo POLITICO 7/1/2020 By Nancy Cook and Gabby Orr
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump. © Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images President Donald Trump.

The Trump White House has a new internal battle: how much to talk publicly about a pandemic that’s crippling huge swaths of America.

President Donald Trump’s top aides are divided over the merits of resuming national press briefings to keep the public informed about the latest coronavirus statistics as infection rates spike in large states including California, Texas, Florida, Arizona and Georgia.

Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, senior adviser Jared Kushner, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and counselor to the president Hope Hicks are among the aides arguing against these regular sessions because they want to keep the White House focused on the path forward and the nascent economic recovery — without scaring too much of the country about a virus resurgence when infections are rising at different paces in different regions.

Other senior aides, as well as Vice President Mike Pence and his team, believe keeping Americans up-to-date about the nature of the outbreak is critical as the death toll rises. More than 126,000 people have perished in the U.S. due to the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the government’s own experts are warning of serious trouble ahead.

The brewing internal fight shows the extent to which the White House has lost control of its messaging on Covid-19 as the majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus, according to interviews with a half dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.

Trump’s standing in the polls has slipped in recent weeks among senior citizens, suburban women and white non-college educated voters, all critical constituencies for the president heading into the heat of his reelection race. Top aides cannot decide the best way for Trump to appear in control of the response — while the president himself has remained focused on culture-war concerns such as protests, the removal of monuments and the funding of law enforcement.

Trump has told advisers and allies he expects a vaccine to arrive this fall, a timeline for which there is no certainty, and he wants aides to offer both facts to the public as well as a message of optimism, said a senior administration official.

Since the federal government’s Covid-19 task force discontinued its daily briefings in May, Pence has taken on most of the administration’s coronavirus messaging responsibilities — through interviews with local news outlets, outreach to religious groups and other engagement with key constituencies. Several of his trips outside Washington in the past two months have featured informal updates on state reopenings, disease transmission and the status of a vaccine.

Now, Trump aides are trying to decide whether to put the national spotlight back on what they have spent months arguing is a series of state and local issues, and that had previously been relegated to the vice president’s office for handling.

“Cutting back on the briefings left a void that was filled by the media and the president’s political opponents in order to mislead people, and it resulted on the administration being put on the defensive,” said a second senior administration official said.

Core to their conundrum is the president himself. Trump loves the spotlight, and his briefings during the heart of the crisis turned into protracted events that sometimes stretched for two hours – with the president straying off message and generating negative headlines.

Those sessions have “no end goal and just focus on the political issue of the day,” said another senior administration official. “A large group of advisers in the White House think it would be more effective to do more regionally focused press than national briefings.”

The coronavirus void at the White House — after a historic stretch of briefings by the president himself — is highlighting the holes in Trump’s latest approach as he focuses on other matters while blaming the media for focusing on the coronavirus.

Trump’s current handling of the virus risks damaging Trump’s standing even further, making him look out of touch with even his own supporters in red states now struggling with the virus resurgence.

“You can’t spin a pandemic,” said David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “I mean, everyone is living with it. The reality of it is too obvious.”

“The best thing to do in a crisis, any crisis, if you are president is to be as forthcoming as possible and to allow the professionals who are experts to take the lead,” Axelrod said. “During the H1N1 virus back in 2009, I think every briefing, but one, was held at the CDC. They were the lead agency. They had the best info.”

The CDC has held a three briefings since mid-March — though the agency’s director recently promised to reinstate more regular briefings. The latest briefing by the White House coronavirus task force took place Friday at the Department of Health and Human Services. Pence also visited the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Headquarters in Rockville, Md., on Tuesday to offer remarks and answer reporters’ questions.

“At the request of President Trump, Vice President Pence is pleased to provide the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings to the American people,” said Pence spokesman Devin O’Malley.

Some White House officials like Meadows want Dr. Deborah Birx, a global infectious diseases expert on the White House task force, to become the face of the coronavirus response and make appearances on local media in hard-hit areas like Texas, Arizona and Florida. Birx joined Pence on his trip to Texas last Sunday, where they both met with Gov. Greg Abbott and issued new pleas for the public to wear protective masks. She is expected to travel to Arizona with Pence on Wednesday as that state struggles with an overwhelming surge in coronavirus cases.

The White House is also currently working on a public service announcement on Covid-19 that features the Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Birx and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

The government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is viewed by some White House aides as an expert who promotes too much fear-mongering, even though he’s an icon in public health circles and generally seen as trusted by the public in surveys.

Before a Senate panel on Tuesday, Fauci warned the U.S. could see an explosion of daily cases if the coronavirus continues to spread. The rise in cases in the South and the West “puts the entire country at risk,” he added.

“We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day,” Dr. Fauci said. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around. And so, I am very concerned.”

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has become a line of political attack for the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden devoted the majority of his speech in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday to criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the virus and outlining the steps he would take if he is elected in November.

“Month after month, as other leaders took the necessary steps to get the virus under control, Donald Trump failed us,” Biden said. He argued the White House should offer weekly updates on vaccine distribution and production and that Trump should send a clear signal on wearing masks.

Public health experts say the administration’s messaging on the virus, dating back to January, has been contradictory and confusing: from Trump assuring Americans the virus would be gone by April to the administration’s advice on wearing masks to Trump’s own promotion of the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine. They say all of that has contributed to the U.S. under-performance compared with Europe and other advanced economies.

“The briefings we saw previously were basically propaganda exercises,” said Greg Gonsalves, an assistant professor in epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine. “They provided a bare minimum to the public on how to protect themselves, and they were often a vehicle for misinformation and disinformation.”

“If we have briefings, they need to be science-based. They need to be fact-based,” Gonsalves added. “We are not asking that much out of this administration.”


Video: Pence defends Trump’s decision to hold rallies amid virus spread, cites right to assemble (NBC News)

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