After a pained and somewhat public debate over discontinuing the daily White House coronavirus briefings, President Donald Trump this week has attempted to bridge the gap between the wishes of his advisers and his own inclinations by moving the event elsewhere.
Instead of the blue-hued James S. Brady Briefing Room — where the last time he took questions he found himself veering into bleach and sunlight peril — Trump has convened with reporters each day this week: in the Oval Office, the East Room, the State Dining Room and the Rose Garden.
With a more limited crowd and — with the help of visiting governors and executives — a narrower focus, Trump and his aides hope to avoid the devolving spectacle they saw the previous briefings becoming.
The shift had been weeks in the making as advisers gently warned the President that the briefings were hurting, not helping him. But it wasn’t until a Friday afternoon breaking point — after close to 24 hours of negative coverage of his remarks about disinfectants — that a change was made.
Some still remain wary that Trump can regain his stature after attempting to blanket the airwaves with his daily updates. So far this week, Trump’s events have largely avoided the combativeness and grievance-airing that had become the signature feature of his briefing room appearances. But it’s only Day 3.
Initially conceived as a venue to harness a rapt public and convey a sense of executive authority, the daily briefings from the White House press room had become an internal flash point for an administration struggling to contain the pandemic.
Trump had barely set foot in the room before February 27, when he walked out to deliver a statement and take questions about the growing outbreak. By mid-March, the event had become a daily occurrence, moved into the early evening at Trump’s insistence to capture more viewers. He told aides he appreciated the sense of authority the briefing room imparted, and bragged about getting better ratings than anyone else sharing his stage.
But as time went on, Trump — whose tone in the briefings veered wildly from day to day and even within single sessions — found himself looking less like an even-keeled wartime leader and more like the mercurial brawler he’d never really attempted to suppress after becoming president.
That was a problem for Trump’s political advisers, some of whom had been cautioning him for weeks against continuing the daily sessions, which they believed were eroding his approval ratings.
Last Wednesday, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale and several other top political advisers briefed him on internal campaign and Republican National Committee data showing the President was heading for defeat in key battleground states. Parscale, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and other advisers urged him to scale back his daily news conferences, pointing to data showing they were hurting him with critical swing voters.
Trump wasn’t convinced, people familiar with the matter said, pointing instead to other factors like his reduced travel schedule and negative media coverage.
A day later, the disinfectant episode unfolded — a briefing room nadir for the President, who spent the next several days fuming about how the incident was covered and, in a phone call first reported by CNN, berating Parscale for his political predicament.
The episode also led to a contentious senior staff meeting Friday morning, where West Wing aides faulted the vice president’s office for inviting a senior Department of Homeland Security official to the briefing without running his presentation by the rest of the team first. The official had presented at the task force meeting the day before, though Trump was not there.
By the time the week had ended, word emerged of a new strategy that did not include daily press briefings but did involve a renewed focus on the economy, an area some White House aides believed would come more naturally for Trump.
How willing the President was to adopt to new plan remained an open question, even for close aides. Trump does not like the appearance of being managed, and stories at the end of the week depicted the change as mostly driven by worried political advisers.
Still, the President appeared to have bought into the new plan, or at least some iteration of it.
“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 tweeted over the weekend. “They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News. Not worth the time & effort!”
After going weeks with daily press briefings even on weekends — including days when aides presumed there would be none — Saturday and Sunday passed without question-and-answer sessions.
But as the week began, some confusion over the new state of play was evident. The President’s schedule for Monday was released listing a briefing for the usual time in the afternoon. In the morning, aides said that was a mistake, and the President’s new press secretary told reporters there would be no briefing.
But a few hours later, the plans had changed again. “UPDATE,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wrote. “The White House has additional testing guidance and other announcements about safely opening up America again. President @realDonaldTrump will brief the nation.”
And so he did, from the Rose Garden, where he allowed a parade of retail executives speak before eventually taking questions about the testing strategy he’d just unveiled.
Trump had been irked by emerging news reports that he was halting the briefings because of the fallout from his remarks about disinfectants. He instructed aides to not say he has stopped doing briefings.
“This has been an opportunity to speak directly to the American people. We think they’ve been great,” McEnany said following an appearance on Fox News on Monday. Future briefings, she said “might have a new look to them, a new focus to them,” declining to provide further details
On Tuesday, Trump’s schedule didn’t include a briefing. But by mid-morning it seemed like the plans had changed again when McEnany tweeted Trump would hold a news conference with the visiting Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis.
It turns out Trump was merely planning to take questions from reporters alongside DeSantis in the Oval Office, which he does frequently when hosting foreign officials or other dignitaries.
Seated in his yellow armchair, Trump grew testy at moments, including when a reporter from Yahoo News pressed him on the state of testing in the United States compared to other countries.
Trump deferred to Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, who later produced figures showing the US testing more people per capita than South Korea.
“Just check it again,” Birx told the reporter politely.
Trump was less forgiving.
“You ought to get your facts right,” he snapped.
On Wednesday, as Trump surveyed the clutch of reporters who’d come to listen to him meet with industry executives, he seemed in a better mood.
“These are the most wonderful human beings,” he said sarcastically, before deciding he approved of the faces he saw. “Actually, this is a nice group. I can’t imagine, we actually have a nice group of people.”
How Trump proceeds with his press interactions remains to be seen. But with potential travel to Arizona outlooked, next week promises the return of a Trump-era hallmark: the South Lawn “chopper talk,” where presidential fury and authority alike are dampened by a helicopter engine’s roar.
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