To anybody suddenly tuning into the president’s press conference this Monday evening, it might have seemed like the leader of the free world was channeling an off-hours televangelist, taking advantage of a pandemic to offer a hazy tale of a miraculous cure.
“… a gentleman,” Donald Trump intoned from inside the White House, invoking an antimalarial remedy called hydroxychloroquine, “they thought he was not going to make it. He said goodbye to his family. They had given him the drug just a little while before, but he thought it was over. His family thought he was going to die. And a number of hours later, he woke up, felt good. Then he woke up again, and he felt really good. And he’s in good shape. And he’s very happy …” The drug, if it works on Covid-19, would be, he said, “a gift from God.”
This brief, almost mystical tale came in the eight-minute mark of the first hour of another installment of what has become a new American serial drama.
Over the last two weeks, Trump has embarked on a striking chapter of his optics-obsessed presidency, turning the all-but-abandoned briefing room into the set of a largely unscripted television series that has gripped, worried and (depending on one’s political affiliation) infuriated viewers.
Stripped of the weapon of his rallies, of “chopper talk,” of the sorts of set pieces to which the populace had grown accustomed over the three-plus years he’s been commander-in-chief, Trump as a president in crisis has engineered something different. While governors from New York to California have staged almost daily briefings, offering a traditional mixture of stern warnings and words of comfort, Trump has created something more like a show built on narrative surprises and populated with familiar characters—the good doctors, the bad reporters, the loyal lieutenants. And in the middle of it all, playing the role of the ringmaster, the marketer and the brander and the professed expert, is Trump.
His mood and his message have ebbed and flowed, alternately boasting and bashing, soothing and striking, intermittently solemn, flippant and peeved, flouting facts and shifting blame, underplaying dire projections and overselling potential vaccines.
“He is,” former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res told me, “being himself.”
The president’s political career has been shaped deeply by his experiences as the star of “The Apprentice,” for which he developed the “Mr. Trump” boardroom persona and his trademark judgmental pout. He entered the Oval Office urging aides to see his administration as a show in which he battles rivals, and he has duly done his part, serving up twists and turns and clear-cut conflicts with recurring and easily identifiable enemies (the press, the Democrats, “Sleepy Joe Biden,” “the Chinese virus”).
But the program he now has constructed out of the press briefings has drawn an audience far beyond even what he found with his invariably provocative tweets or his rallies packed with MAGA-capped fans. The enormity of a worldwide plague has galvanized the attention of the entire nation, every corner of which has been touched by the spreading disease. For the public, a portion of which had tuned out or become numb, these briefings have amounted to a reintroduction of sorts to the man who is their president—“the most present human being I ever met,” as a Trump associate told biographer Wayne Barrett some three decades back, “the episodic man,” as psychologist Dan P. McAdams writes in a book out just last week.
“The endless quiz show, the endless soap opera,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair told me the other day. “It’s never over with him. He’s always going to have something to make you tune in again.”
“What he’s doing in these briefings is not that different than what he’s ever done,” McAdams said in an interview. “The difference now is that we are in a unique historical period … and so everything that the president does in a situation like this gets magnified”—the airy, unfounded assurances, the casual advocacy of untested potential treatments based on “just a feeling,” the intensely personal sparring with Peter Alexander from NBC, his snide comment about the self-quarantining Mitt Romney. It all might kind of feel more or less like typical Trump schtick—if not for the relentlessly grim stakes. What next?
“There’s a sense,” added Michael Caputo, a former Trump adviser, “of a cliffhanger at the end of every one—you can almost hear it at the close of every briefing, something straight out of, like, ‘same bat time, same bat channel.’”
Even when he’s not at the microphone, he never relinquishes the spotlight. In the middle of Monday’s briefing, for instance, Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, was at the lectern and mentioned that she had stayed home over the weekend on account of a low-grade fever. “Uh oh,” quipped the notoriously germaphobic Trump, theatrically throwing up his hands and moving away from her, eliciting a chorus of camera clicks. But she got tested for the virus, she said, and it came back negative. “Phew,” the president said, flashing a self-satisfied smile.
With hundreds of millions of people justifiably freaked out and cooped up, cable news networks’ ratings are rising. Some polls say Trump’s approval ratings are doing the same. And these new daily doses of Trump keep getting longer. Slowly but surely, they’re tending toward later in the day, too, edging into prime time, reportedly no accident.
Monday’s was the longest one yet. It lasted 10 minutes shy of two hours, pushing into the 8 o’clock hour.
“I’ve gotten to like this room,” Trump said.
Immersed in the world of TV—as an inveterate watcher, as a proven practitioner—Trump has settled into a formulaic rhythm. The briefing almost always starts with him. It almost always ends with him. He initially had deputized Mike Pence, of course, to head up his administration’s coronavirus response, but the spread and its consequences kept getting worse and the vice president continued to receive a share of praise, and Trump going on two weeks or so ago began to reclaim center stage.
“He’s his own best messenger, and he’s his own best strategist, always,” former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg told me this week, “and at this point he realizes he needs to be the public face of the U.S. response to this pandemic.”
“His presidency is at stake.”
And the briefing room?
“The perfect setting.”
“Thank you very much,” he said to start, a little after noon, describing “the results” of that day’s meeting of the coronavirus task force as “very, very good.”
Since then, Trump has been introducing the members of his supporting cast—the doctors, the admirals and the secretaries, and the public health pros—“fantastic,” “very talented,” “highly respected” “incredible patriots,” as he has put it. “We’ve created a number of new stars,” he said that Saturday. (In the past, it’s how he would talk sometimes about his ex-wives.)
He has stoked fights with stock foes—discerning, non-fawning reporters—and he has crowd-tested terms to label the enemy at hand. When he hasn’t called it “the Chinese virus” to effectively wink at the nativist parts of his base, Trump has dubbed Covid-19 “an invisible enemy,” “the toughest enemy,” “this hidden scourge.”
Touting bold declarations of nonspecific actions, loosely tied to vague, noncommittal windows of time, deploying his well-practiced spoken stop signs (“excuse me,” “just so you know”), and leaning hard on his superlative-laced lexicon (“never been done,” “not even close,” “tremendous” and “incredible” and “dramatic” and “historic”), Trump has searched in this most vexing trial of his life for ways to do what he’s always done—declare victory. In a quiet admission that there’s next to nothing he can spin into a win, at least right now, he has hailed successes from the past and pledged triumphs in the future.
“… numbers like no other country has ever done before, number one in the world, if you go back two weeks …”
“… everything was really hunky-dory …”
“… we will win …”
“… even faster than we thought …”
“… our country is going to bounce back like you’ve never seen before.”
He airily has offered unsurprisingly generous self-assessments about his performance and that of his team. “We’ve done a fantastic job,” he said in one briefing. “I’d rate it a ’10,’” he said in another.
When pressed for nettlesome particulars, he has stepped aside for Pence, for Birx, for immunologist and task force member Tony Fauci and others—resolutely, practically reflexively shifting the blame. To his predecessors (“we inherited a very obsolete system”). To (Democratic) governors. To China.
“Where are the tests?” Trump was asked on March 18.
“I’ll let Mike answer that,” he said.
The masks? This was the next day.
“Vice president?” the president said.
“Your administration,” a reporter asked on March 22, “eliminated a key position in China in July—a medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s Disease Control Agency—and it was just months before the first cases were spotted in Wuhan. So the question is, basically, why the post was eliminated …”
“Anybody?” Trump said, looking at the people with him on the stage.
And the showman president has ended every briefing with promises of more to come.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” he said Friday, “and we’ll see you folks tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” he said Saturday.
“Tomorrow,” he said Sunday.
There are limits, needless to say, to Trump’s attempts to shoehorn what he accomplished with his raucous rallies into this smaller, more staid space, and with a steadily shrinking audience of socially distancing reporters who are focused on one subject only—the most sweeping public health scare in more than a century.
Without, say, a Mark Burnett on hand to hack at the narrative incoherence and mold the visceral, minute-to-minute adlibbing into some tidy, salable shape, Trump in the course of these briefings so far has ended up (as he has done throughout the bulk of his existence) quite often contradicting himself.
Untethered from what he has said in the past, unbothered by what he might have to say in the future, focused totally on what he must do to fight his way through the immediate present, Dan McAdams’ “episodic man” has called the press “very fair,” “very fair” … and then “very dishonest”—coming to an especially ugly head in the interaction with NBC’s Alexander. “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” Alexander asked. “I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” Trump said. “That’s what I say.”
He called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” “the Chinese virus,” “the Chinese virus,” day after day after day—until he didn’t. “It seems,” he said Monday, “that there could be a little bit of nasty language toward the Asian-Americans in our country. And I don’t like that at all. These are incredible people. They love our country. And I’m not going to let it happen.”
He has dubbed himself “a wartime president” while nonetheless insisting the federal government is not “a shipping clerk” for necessary medical supplies. He often has placed the onus on governors. “We’re sort of a backup for the states,” he said Sunday.
He has gone from being upbeat one day to dour the next.
“We’re going to be so good,” he said March 15.
“It’s bad,” he said March 16. “It’s bad.”
“August. Could be July. Could be longer than that,” he said that day, responding to a question concerning when normalcy might return. As much as five months or more.
But he lost patience with those sober projections just a week into the war. “It’s not going to be three or four months,” he said, “as some people were saying”—first and foremost himself. “America will again, and soon, be open for business—very soon—a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner.”
“Easter,” Trump said during Tuesday’s briefing. “What a great timeline that would be.”
What a good story.
What a pleasing finale to this season of the show.