After declining to answer questions from reporters Friday, President Trump over the weekend declared the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings a waste of his time and effort.
If he really is done with them, that is undoubtedly a small victory for the American people.
Trump’s presence at the briefings has never been helpful in terms of getting critical information about the virus and response efforts out to the Americans. Rarely, if ever, has he spoken compassionate words about the thousands upon thousands of people who have died from this horrible disease or offered meaningful reassurances for health care workers who are overburdened with patients and put their lives on the line every day.
Instead, he has used the outings as a substitute for his campaign rallies to air his political grievances, deflect blame, responsibility and accountability off on others, whine about reporters asking him “hostile” questions, and brag about his “ratings.” In between, he often contradicts or cuts off the public health experts with decades of experience around him. This unwelcome distraction has been a colossal abdication of his responsibilities and duties as president.
Trump’s weekend Twitter proclamation came after numerous reports that his aides and allies have been urging him to halt or significantly scale back his participation in the briefings, as all signs point toward them being a political disaster for him.
Unlike most previous presidents who experienced substantial booms in their popularity and approval ratings during national emergencies and crises, Trump’s initial bump was fleeting and his approval ratings are back to levels that typically spell doom in a re-election year. The latest round of polling shows that he is deep trouble, trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in virtually every battleground state.
Anyone who watches these briefings with clear eyes can understand why. As much as people like to prod Biden for being gaffe-prone, his gaffes pale in comparison to the ones made daily by Trump.
The latest came last week when he, unprompted by any questions from media, idly started speculating that people could inject disinfectants into their bodies to immunize themselves from COVID-19. He strongly implied this was worth investigating when there was zero scientific basis for it.
Trump and his fierce legion of defenders have moaned and groaned that the mean media was taking his comments out of context. No, he did not literally tell people to shoot up Lysol or drink Clorox. But I’ve watched the video and read the official White House transcript more than once, and what he said was alarming enough for Dr. Deborah Birx to have a very uncomfortable visual reaction while sitting their listening. It was alarming enough for the U.S. Surgeon General and FDA commissioner to issue public warnings against the ingestion of the chemicals in the disinfectants. And it was alarming enough for the maker of Lysol to put out a statement that “under no circumstances” should people put the product in their bodies.
As far as I can tell, Trump’s musings haven’t gotten anyone killed yet. I saw a fake news story circulating around Facebook the other day that a mother in Louisiana had given her two small children injections of disinfectant after hearing Trump’s comments and that they had suffered violent seizures as a result. That was another of the countless examples of how misinformation can spread quickly around social media, which a far too large number of Americans consider their primary news source.
But, unrelated to Trump, there has long been an issue of people thinking these types of chemicals can heal them. One particular problem has been misinformed parents believing bleach can cure their children of autism. And, prior to Trump’s statements last week, poison control centers around the country have reported a significant uptick in calls, since the pandemic arrived, from people thinking they can immunize themselves by ingesting dangerous chemicals.
Many of these people likely watch cable news. Words from our elected officials, particularly the president, carry extraordinary weight with the public. There's a reason that, traditionally at least, anything a president says in front of cameras comes from information that is thoroughly vetted by his staff.
Over the weekend, I saw multiple shareable posts circulating on my Facebook newsfeed from ardent Trump supporters. One said that Trump was not suggesting anything and everything he said was taken out of context. Another said he was right to say what he said because there is evidence that injecting the chemicals into one’s body does work. And yet another said he was so tired and stressed from doing his job to protect the American people that he didn’t realize what he was saying. Whatever coping mechanism people want to use to try to convince themselves all is well, none of them can mask Trump’s sheer incompetence and inability to rise to this crucial moment in American history with the leadership that it demands.
Trump even undercut all of those tired defenses by saying he was being sarcastic with his comments to reporters “just to see what would happen.” You have to seriously ask yourself this question: Is it responsible or appropriate for the President of the United States to be joking around and “testing” reporters at a press conference where he should be focused on giving factual information about a global pandemic to millions of viewers? The answer, if you’re really honest with yourself, is a resounding “no.”
Something has to change. We can’t go on like this.