“I’ve gotten to like this room,” President Donald Trump said March 23 in the White House briefing room.
If the walls had ears, they’d have been surprised to hear it. Until recently, the Trump administration had all but done away with formal press briefings, and the president preferred to talk to reporters amid the helpful din of a helicopter or in a Fox News studio.
But the briefing room has one amenity that Trump, suddenly without rallies and travel appearances amid a pandemic, cannot resist: a camera.
Trump became a prime-time star through TV, a political figure through TV and a president through TV. But he has not, as president, had what he had with NBC’s “The Apprentice”: a regular TV show in which he plays an executive in control.
Now, the coronavirus briefings have given him a new, live and unfiltered daily platform before a captive national audience. True to his résumé, he has conducted them as a kind of reality TV, or rather, create-your-own-reality TV.
In this reality — often subject to later fact-checking by the press or to backpedaling by staff — help and needed equipment are always just around the corner. Accurate reports of his conflicts with governors over federal support are “fake news.” And no one could have anticipated a pandemic like this, despite warnings, playbooks and public health infrastructure intended to do exactly that.
The daily coronavirus briefings, increasingly timed to run live on cable and broadcast right around the evening news, are a journey. The president begins them by soberly reading statements. (On Thursday, he gave the roll call of the G-20 leadership.) He can be expansive — even, astonishingly, praising the media — and he can be peevish. (“I want them to be appreciative,” he said Friday of American governors.)
In its short life, for all its dead-serious subject matter, the program has developed the structure, rhythm and characters of a weekly reality show.
There’s drama and intrigue, such as the reports that the president might be at odds with staffers like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. There’s the appearance of the protagonist, Trump, flanked by lieutenants, to announce the day’s topics and story lines.
And there’s the concluding “Apprentice” boardroom-style conflict in the Q&A session, in which friendly journalists are praised, and those who ask questions he doesn’t want to answer are “terrible.” After which Trump leaves the set and his public health officials climb into the producer’s chair to edit his comments and their own often diverging guidance into a cohesive narrative.
Trump’s critics have said that his briefings are simply campaign rallies in another form. The two things do have elements in common: the litanies of grievances, the insulting of reporters and political rivals, the self-aggrandisement and selective history.
As at his rallies, Trump’s digressions can defy both science and syntax, like his observation on how children tend to be less seriously affected “by this pandemic, by this disease, this — whatever they want to call it, you can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus, you know, you can call it many different names, I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is.” (It is a virus.)
The key difference is that Trump’s campaign rallies are for the faithful. They speak to and galvanize his base, and lately have been broadcast only on Fox News. The briefings are something that Trump hasn’t had since he declared Leeza Gibbons the winner of his final “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2015: a TV show aimed at a wide mass audience.
Trump, numbers-obsessed even in more ordinary times, went on Twitter to boast that his briefings on a deadly catastrophe had boffo ratings:
“Because the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers’ according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY,” Trump wrote on twitter. “‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.’ said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!”
His audience — stuck at home, in their living rooms, with their screens — is looking for a red cross, not red meat. They’re afraid for their lives and their jobs. They want information, action, a reason to believe things will get better.
There is no greater asset to a salesman or a politician than an audience that wants to believe. If you want to believe, here’s what you can see: The president of the United States, at a podium, backed by a team of officials and experts, doing something — or at least saying something, at length, which in the visual language of TV reads as the same thing.
It is not only viewers at home who want to have faith. On March 17, when Trump struck a somber note after minimizing the virus for weeks, CNN’s Dana Bash said that he was being “the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone.”
A week later, he was at a Fox “virtual town hall” saying, “We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu — we don’t turn the country off,” and announcing his urge to reopen the economy on Easter. (The host, Bill Hemmer, hosanna’ed that it would be “a great American resurrection.”)
And for Trump, the briefings allow him to turn his pandemic response from a serial narrative, in which he’s held accountable for his cumulative action or inaction over time, into an episodic production, in which all that matters is what happened in the latest installment.
Every episode, in this production, wipes the slate clean, like a sitcom restoring the status quo. All those comments about how the coronavirus is like the flu and about how the cases will soon go down to zero and about not wanting to receive infected cruise-ship passengers because “I like the numbers being where they are”? That’s last season.
What matters, as the briefings frame it, is the next thing, the new rhetoric, the latest drama. “Will the president be there?” asked CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, teasing the March 25 briefing. “Will Dr. Fauci be there?”
There has been some counterprogramming, especially the live-morning briefings by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has emerged as the default Democratic response. (The presumptive opposition nominee, Joe Biden — whose media strategy has seemed premised on the idea that people simply want a chance to turn off The Trump Show — has struggled to break through the noise, being limited to the equivalent of FaceTime calls.)
Cuomo’s briefings are part tough talk, part pep talk. His tone is both more dire than the president’s and more emotional — a kind of virtual New York backslap next to Trump’s outer borough pitchmanship. On Friday, he asked a National Guard group to imagine a day, a decade hence, when they will remember how hard they worked and how many people they still couldn’t save, then concluded: “So I say, my friends, that we go out there today and we kick coronavirus’ ass!”
But it’s the president who’s able to seize prime time, abetted by networks who — knowing that his briefings have made objectively false claims — fall back on the easy answer that when the president speaks during an emergency, that is by definition news. (It’s true: If the president is spreading misinformation, deliberately or otherwise, in a public health crisis, that is absolutely news. That doesn’t mean that airing it live is a service.)
Trump’s career has always been based on the premise that appearance is everything. That may be proving effective for him now, as measured by his cable ratings and his rising poll numbers. But there are limits to this media strategy; you can’t simply give a disease a mean nickname or dismiss it as if it were Don Lemon or Nancy Pelosi.
You can go a long way, in TV and politics, producing a successful reality show. A virus, ultimately, produces its own reality.
James Poniewozik c.2020 The New York Times Company