So much for “presidential”. Donald Trump reverted to his blame-casting, grievance-airing, media-bashing ways on Thursday in a press conference that started strangely and ended in an even weirder place.
It was the same Trump who spent more than four years lambasting the “fake news” media as enemies of the people. But now it was taking place during a global pandemic in which thousands of lives depend on trustworthy sources and reliable information.
Despite the gravity of a situation that has earned comparisons to war, Trump began with a joke: “I have to say I think with social distancing, that the media’s been much nicer. I don’t know what it is, all these empty, these inbetween chairs,” – a reference to how reporters now space themselves out in the White House briefing room.
Trump added: “I love it, it’s so much nicer, but I shouldn’t say that because you’ll get me now.”
Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the coronavirus task force, remained stony-faced behind him.
The president continued to paint a sunny picture about clinical trials and economic recovery but, as reporters began to challenge him over the federal response to the crisis, his mood darkened.
Questioned by an NBC News journalist about his recent claim that he recognised the outbreak as a pandemic before others did, Trump complained: “We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media. The media has not treated it fairly.
“I’ll tell you how prepared I was. I called for a ban from people coming in from China long before anybody thought it was – in fact, it was your network, I believe they called me a racist because I did that.”
Bridling with indignation, he added: “It was many of the people in the room. They called me racist and other words because I did that, because I went so early.”
Mike Pence and the surgeon general, Jerome Adams, who is African American, remained expressionless behind him.
Trump is accustomed to sycophancy from Pence and the others around him – phrases such as “The president has ordered” and “The president directed”. The reporters, however, did not get the memo. He seemed upset that they had the temerity to grill him about his frequent downplaying of the threat of the virus and failure to organise testing kits.
Trump was asked about the first two cases of coronavirus among members of Congress. He used it as an opportunity to chastise the gathered media. “I don’t know if they’re sitting like you people are sitting. You’re actually sitting too close.”
It was another of those occasions when no one is entirely sure whether Trump is joking. In any case, the reporters in the briefing room – which long ago was the White House swimming pool – looked distinctly unamused.
Trump went on: “You should really — we should probably get rid of about another 75, 80% of you. I have just two or three of you that I like in this room. I think that’s a great way of doing it. We just figured a new way of doing it, but you’re actually much too close. You two, you should leave immediately.”
This was pretty rich from a man who continues to shake hands and flout rules on social distancing, even on the White House podium. Last week, when it emerged that Trump had been at Mar-a-Lago with a Brazilian official who had tested positive for the virus, he reluctantly agreed to take a coronavirus test, which came back negative.
“I got a test because you people were driving everybody crazy,” he said. “I had no symptoms but I had a test and my doctor told me don’t get it, you don’t need it, everybody said you don’t need it, but I had it because the press was going crazy.”
Trump has spent much of his presidency boasting about the economy; now it is suddenly a sore point. One reporter prefaced his question, “Right now, the economy has essentially ground to a halt.”
Irritated, Trump butted in sarcastically: “Thanks for telling us, we appreciate it.”
The reporter continued his gloomy forecast and Trump snapped: “Go ahead, what’s the rest of your question, everybody in the room knows that.”
The president has been criticised for constantly using the xenophobic term “Chinese virus”. A sharp-eyed photographer caught a picture of his notes, showing the word “corona” was crossed out and replaced by “Chinese” in handwritten black ink.
The issue came up at the end of the briefing, but not as anyone had imagined. Chanel Rion, who works for the pro-Trump One America News Network, and recently speculated wildly that the coronavirus might have been created in a lab in North Carolina, asked: “Do you consider the use of the term ‘Chinese food’ racist – because it’s food that originates in China or has Chinese roots?
Appreciating the gift, Trump replied: “No, I don’t think it’s racist at all.”
Rion, who last year took Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to spread baseless conspiracy theories, wasn’t done. “On that note, major left-wing news media, even in this room, have teamed up with Chinese Communist Party narratives, and they are claiming that you are racist for making these claims about ‘Chinese virus’.
“Is it alarming that major media players, just to oppose you, are consistently siding with foreign state propaganda, Islamic state radicalism, Latin gangs and cartels? And they work right here at the White House with direct access to you and your team.”
Finally, the Trump era had jumped the shark. He revelled in it. “It amazes me when I read the things that I read,” he said. “It amazes me when I read the Wall Street Journal, which is always so negative. It amazes me when I read – the New York Times is not even – I barely read it. You know, we don’t distribute it in the White House anymore, and the same thing with the Washington Post.
“Because you see, I know the truth. And people out there in the world, they really don’t know the truth. They don’t know what it is. They use different slogans and different concepts for me almost every week trying to catch something.
“Last week, it was, oh, chaos. You see me, there’s no chaos. No chaos. I’m the one telling everybody to be calm. There’s no chaos at the White House. We have unbelievable professionals. It’s really – I mean, I think I came up with the term, I hope I came up with the term, but it is fake news. It’s more than fake news, it’s corrupt news.”
Trump continued to gripe about media outlets not calling him and said Democratic governors have praised him. “This administration has done a great job, but the press is very dishonest.”
Rion chimed in: “More than dishonest. They’re siding with state propaganda!”
Suddenly we were in the rightwing fever swamps of the internet. As Hahn and Birx looked on, betraying no emotion, Trump replied: “I think they do. They are siding with China. They are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing. They’re siding with many others; China is the least of it.
“So why are they doing this? You’ll have to ask them. But if we had an honest media in this country, our country would be an even greater place.”
Minutes later, the self-styled “wartime president” was gone. Yet another pivot had been unpivoted. John Heilemann, a host on the MSNBC network, observed: “The president, aspiring to be Churchillian, turns out at every turn to be Donald Trump.”