President Donald Trump stepped to the lectern Monday on a day when the virus death toll in the United States ticked up past 23,000. He addressed the nation during a period where unemployment claims have shot past 15 million, and lines for food banks stretch on towards the horizon.
Yet in the middle of this deadly pandemic that shows no clear signs of abating, the president made clear that the paramount concern for Trump is Trump – his self-image, his media coverage, his supplicants and his opponents, both real and imagined.
“Everything we did was right,” Trump said, in a sometimes hostile two and a half-hour news conference in which he offered a live version of an enemies list, brooking no criticism and repeatedly snapping at reporters who dared to challenge his version of events.
Trump has always had a me-me-me ethos, an uncanny ability to insert himself into the centre of just about any situation. But Monday’s coronavirus briefing offered a particularly stark portrait of a president seeming unable to grasp the magnitude of the crisis – and saying little to address the suffering across the country he was elected to lead.
At one point – after praising himself for implementing travel restrictions on China at the end of January and griping about being “brutalized” by the press – Trump paused to boast with a half-smirk: “But I guess I’m doing OK because, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the president of the United States, despite the things that are said.”
The news conference began when Trump turned to Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, and asked him to “say a few words before we go any further.” With that, Fauci stood and offered a not-quite-apology for comments he made over the weekend to CNN’s Jake Tapper, in which he confirmed that he and other health experts had made mitigation recommendations to Trump as early as the third weekend of February and said that earlier mitigation “could have saved lives.”
On Monday, Fauci tried to walk back his comments, saying he had been responding to a “hypothetical” and had not intended to criticise the president, who he praised for implementing the recommendations of public health officials like himself.
“That was the wrong choice of words,” said Fauci, whose relationship with the president has been tense at times.
One reporter asked him whether he was speaking “voluntarily” or at the behest of the president.
“Everything I do is voluntary,” Fauci said. “Please don’t even imply that.”
Next, Trump played a propaganda-style video that he said had been pulled together by White House aides earlier in the day. In a short hagiography more in line with a political event than a presidential news conference, clips critical of the media were interspersed with footage of loyalists praising the president.
“The president has been outstanding through all this,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, says in the video. “The vice president has been outstanding. Members of the coronavirus task force very responsive.”
Since the pandemic began, Trump’s almost daily news conferences have increasingly taken on the feel of campaign rallies – a simulacrum for the raucous, Keep-America-Great-fests he has had to forgo amid the global contagion.
And on Monday, he brought many of those trademark campaign moments into the briefing room.
“You know, I don’t mind controversy,” Trump said, offering something of a guiding life principle. “I think controversy is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
He also criticised “sleepy Joe Biden,” the presumptive Democratic nominee, because Biden, he said, had previously criticised him, and jousted with the “fake news.”
Shortly after Trump played the video, CBS’s Paula Reid pressed him on how his administration failed to use the month of February to ready itself for the coming virus, after sharply limiting travel from China.
“You didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp up testing,” Reid said, before Trump cut her off, calling her “disgraceful.”
Reid forged ahead. “What did you do with the time that you bought, the month of February?” she asked, as Trump talked over her. “That video has a gap – the entire month of February. What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?”
“A lot. A lot,” said Trump, without offering specifics, before turning his frustration back on Reid.
“You know you’re a fake,” he said.
At another moment, seemingly eager to assert his dominance over the nation’s governors, Trump declared incorrectly: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.”
Later, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins followed up: “You said when someone is president of the United States, their authority is total. That is not true. Who told you that?”
The president declined to answer, saying “the governors need us” before abruptly silencing Collins with a sharp: “Enough.”
About halfway through, Trump finally departed, leaving the remainder of the briefing to Vice President Mike Pence and the public health professionals. But the first hour of the news conference was a paean to the president and his ego, orchestrated by Trump himself.
For one fleeting instance, the president seemed poised to reveal a flicker of self-awareness. Asked why he shared a tweet from a supporter with the hashtag #FireFauci, the president said that while he personally thinks Fauci is “terrific,” not everybody is happy with him.
“Not everybody is happy with – ” Trump said, before pausing briefly. He seemed about to say himself; not everybody is happy with Fauci, and not everybody is happy with Trump.
But then, never one for self-criticism, he concluded: “Not everybody is happy with everybody.”
The Washington Post