President Donald Trump failed the defining test of his presidency in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus. He turned to a format meant to calm the nation, provide clarity, and offer a clear plan of action, but accomplished none of those things. On the contrary, he left Americans more anxious, more confused, and looking elsewhere for a plan.
To understand how we got here and where we’re headed, it’s important to understand how presidents manage information in the White House. The West Wing is by nature an isolating place. When I first went to work there, at the beginning of the administration of Barack Obama, I was struck by how small it was—a handful of offices on three floors; a few dozen people bearing enormous responsibilities. Once you step inside, you have an extraordinary capacity to shape the information that comes to you—what you choose to read, what sources you value, and what you do with the immense amounts of information that come your way. If you’re the president, that can include your daily intelligence briefing, how you consume news, and whom you choose to listen to.
First, there is the question of how you deal with bad news. I remember when reports of Ebola cases in West Africa started appearing in the morning intelligence briefings in 2014, buried amid dozens of other pieces of information. An Ebola outbreak was the last thing we needed at the time; ISIS was on the rise and Vladimir Putin was invading Ukraine. It was easy to see Ebola as something far away, of little consequence in the moment. But it’s a fact of the presidency that you end up spending time on things you didn’t anticipate, things that distract you from your normal priorities.