Five months into the worst domestic crisis since World War II, and after his disastrous call to open up states that had not yet purged the disease sparked a surge of infections, the President may finally be understanding that his performance during the pandemic will be decisive in November’s election. But his recent comments and the actions of his government also indicate a mostly cosmetic public relations attempt to convince the public he’s in charge rather than a complete rethink of strategy as the virus rages out of control.
Briefings will offer Trump a return to the television screens that he craves and likely not coincidentally will resume after he told supporters at the weekend that the worsening pandemic will keep him off the campaign trail for now.
His reversal on masks could be positive if it convinces conservatives who see covering up as an infringement of their freedoms to take a step that could slow the spread. But his delay in acting may have irrevocably damaged public trust in government health recommendations and contributed to the wildfire spread of the disease, especially in western and southern states.
Trump’s new briefings will be watched for signs that he is committed to leveling with the American people about the true nature of the challenge and that he’s learned from and acknowledged his mistakes and offers true leadership.
But he made clear Monday that his greatest concern was not rampant figures on new infections or a death toll of more than 140,000 Americans.
When he unveiled the comeback of his briefings in the Oval Office alongside Republican congressional leaders, it was as though it was Sweeps week when TV networks preview new seasons of their top shows.
“We had very successful briefings. I was doing them, and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching. And in the history of cable television, television, there’s never been anything like it,” Trump said.
The President implied that he would yet again paint a misleadingly positive vision of the pandemic, over-hyping good news on issues like treatments and vaccine developments rather than the discouraging reality of the situation. And as before, it seems likely that he will lay blame with others.
“I will be discussing, as I call it, the China virus, the China plague,” Trump said Monday.
Trump sees another chance to dominate the screen
The President’s decision to again make himself the face of the pandemic appears to represent a characteristic gut call that no one can present his case better than he can.
Biden sought to capitalize on his advantage on Monday.
“He just seems to have given up. He’s raised the white flag,” Biden told a virtual fundraiser on Monday. “Just ignoring the pandemic won’t make it go away even though he thinks it.”
Trump sticks to same old falsehoods
There is little evidence of that the administration has actually decided to change the way it is fighting the pandemic.
It was not clear whether Fauci would join the President in the briefing room in a sign the administration is finally treating the pandemic with the scientific rigor that it demands. Fauci, however, did appear with Vice President Mike Pence on a coronavirus task force call with state governors and asked them to take recommended mitigation efforts to halt the spread of the disease.
Perhaps the President will finally absorb such data and take a more serious approach. But the experience of his term so far suggests that he will vastly overstate optimistic data points — he repeatedly predicted light at the end of the tunnel in his previous round of briefings, for instance. He also used the spotlight to promote what he billed as game changer treatments like hydroxychloroquine, which turned out to be ineffective against the virus.
School push is a symbol of Trump’s true approach
Trump’s demand for a full time opening of all schools in the coming weeks also shows how he tends to put his own political interests ahead of scientific assessments and a perception of what might be in the national interests.
It is in many ways a repeat of his calamitous call for states to crank up their economies before the science supported the return of bars, restaurants and shopping, especially with many people following the President’s example and spurning the use of face coverings to avoid the spread of infection.
Despite Trump’s adamant calls for kids to go back to class, the administration has done none preparatory work that might convince parents and teachers that it is safe to do so even as the virus infects tens of thousands of people every day.
The consequences of no return to classes are grave, especially for poorer children whose only source of stability and nutrition often comes at school. Abuse at home is often first spotted by teachers. And online learning programs are in many school districts a poor substitute for school.
Sources have told CNN that the President believes that he can play on frustration with continued school closures among suburban voters so far spurning his reelection campaign.
Trump’s failings were epitomized by his comment in the Fox News Sunday interview when he insisted that Fauci was an “alarmist” and that he would “eventually” be proven right about the disease even as states break infection records and the death rate rises again.