This post was updated during the briefing with live analysis and comment.
This was not a natural Trump performance. Yes there were labels of Covid-19 as the ‘China virus’, but nothing akin to his speeches in April. The instruction was clear: read from the pre-planned and carefully crafted script, and avoid any controversial moments. The President was restricted. His rushed voice reflected how he was not enjoying the press conference. It’s motive clear: political.
There was an unusual incidence of retrospective judgement. The President said we have ‘learned a great deal about’ the virus, including how it affected people of different ages and how to treat the virus with ventilators. In contrast to Sunday’s interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, there were also signs of the President shifting away from a strategy of denial (some may say blind denial) into accepting the current situation. The President acknowledged the worsening situation in certain states: ‘we have seen a concerning rise’ – ‘it will get worse before it gets better’. Also Trump said ‘I have no problem with the mask’ and he asked everybody to wear one, saying ‘we need everything we can get’. A realisation of both the role in stopping the spread of Covid-19 that the mask provides and also Trump’s electoral need to react to a hardening public mood.
This was all part of the plan for the press conference: accept the reality of the current situation and by doing so appear in control. The White House also attempted to place themselves back at the centre of managing the pandemic. Trump spoke of the plan to increase American capabilities of what sounded similar to the UK’s Test/Trace strategy (to isolate outbreaks) and to work with governors to increase turnaround times with tests.
And yet it was visible the difficulty Trump had in delivering this scripted, more controlled message. When it came to questions from the press, he very obviously dodged a question over why Dr. Fauci was not there.
Finally, a more competent and assured message can suggest greater control and maybe even leadership (if repeated) but it cannot end the virus. Repeatedly, Trump stressed how a vaccine was coming and that ‘logistically we have great people ready to go’ to deliver it. For a President who has disregarded plenty of scientific advice throughout this pandemic, it is a heck of a gamble to rely on a vaccine to escape from it.
21:30 – Will Donald Trump be alone? In the earlier briefings he was usually accompanied by numerous scientists, including Dr Fauci. Last week however, relations worsened between the White House and Fauci after members of Trump’s team openly criticised him and the President said the professor had made ‘many mistakes’. A visible sign of the President’s relationship with his own scientific advisors, crucial to the handling of the pandemic, will be revealed immediately and thus expect Democrats to spring to action accordingly. 22:00 – Dr. Fauci has told CNN he was not invited to today’s press conference.
Introduction: In April Donald Trump ended the regular coronavirus press conferences that he had led from the White House. The President declared them a ‘waste of time’ and behind the scenes his team of advisors were declaring the worst of the pandemic was over, suggesting there would be no need for continued briefings. They hoped their gamble to reopen the economy would pay off and the results would be felt in time for November’s election. Since then however, the numbers have gone the wrong way. Yesterday the total number of cases recorded in the US was 59,966 – a 32% increase over the last 14 days – and deaths had increased by 64% over the same period to 531. At the same time, Trump is trailing in almost all of the key battleground states.
Today’s decision to restart the Covid press conferences marks Trump’s realisation of two things.
1) He is being blamed for the handling of the coronavirus outbreak and his attempts to pass responsibility onto state governors have not worked. As a result Trump will hope restarting these briefings will help suggest control and leadership. Such admittance was evident in his volte-face yesterday when he tweeted that it was ‘patriotic’ to wear a mask, attached to a photo of himself wearing one. This is the President realising he’s behind the views of the public (in this case on masks) and that he needs to play a more central role. There is a huge risk though – another comment on the lines of the infamous ‘inject yourself with bleach’ line and the whole plan has gone to pot.
2) The President has realised how significant the outbreak is going to be in influencing the outcome of the election and thus he needs to control messaging around it and fight back on that front, after a month of torrid criticism. An example of this comes in how in the aforementioned tweet the President linked the virus with his foreign policy agenda , repeating once again how this is the ‘China virus’. I wonder how many times he will repeat this line tonight.
The President knows he cannot reverse the failures made by the White House over the last few months and that his re-election hopes are now significantly damaged by them . But he can shape how the pandemic is felt by voters come November. This is his last chance – before there is no time left.