Trump’s 5 O’Clock Follies

The president’s words have tremendous power, sending countless Americans to bed with nightmares of Clorox enemas.

President Trump during a briefing
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

About the author: Andrew Ferguson is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces; Land of Lincoln; and Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College.

Well, I picked the wrong day to write a regular report on President Donald Trump’s White House coronavirus briefings. People always have big expectations for Fridays, which have traditionally been enjoyed as the gateway to the weekend, a day of pleasing anticipations. That was back when we had weekends.

Yesterday’s edition of the president’s briefing had a week of tough acts to follow. Wednesday’s brought us the remarkable self-abasement of Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.” The interview obviously displeased the president very much. Therefore, Trump said, Redfield was “totally misquoted.”

In the pressroom on Wednesday afternoon, before the president could finish reading his usual introductory prepared remarks, he interrupted himself to call Redfield to the podium. The president stayed close to the CDC director, hovering just behind and slightly to his right, in the manner of a hostage video—with the difference being that the president, as we know, refuses to wear a mask. Redfield admitted to being totally misunderstood, if not totally misquoted, by the Post. “He was misquoted,” the president said again.

Then, in response to a reporter’s question, Redfield said, “I’m accurately quoted in The Washington Post.” He took his seat. The president looked satisfied, leaving us only to imagine the gruesome Oval Office struggle session that must have preceded the CDC director’s appearance in the pressroom.

The next day’s briefing, on Thursday, became an instant landmark in the history of presidential utterance. Instead of counseling “malice toward none” or warning against the “fear of fear itself,” as other—some would say lesser—presidents have done, President Trump let his mind wander over to how the coronavirus might be outfoxed on surfaces with disinfectant and UV rays from the sun. This time he was appearing with a scientist from the Department of Homeland Security who has been studying the subject.

Then Trump had an idea. (It happens.) “And then I said [presumably to the scientist], supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or [horrible pause] some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too. I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”

The quote is a bit long to fit on the Trump memorial that—some would say—may one day adorn the National Mall, after the future President Bieber signs the authorizing legislation. But his words had tremendous power nonetheless, sending countless Americans to bed with nightmares of Clorox enemas. And dreams of sunlight too, of course. We’ve all known that President Trump was big on flattery, but it turns out that he really does want to blow sunshine up our ass.

Yesterday’s 5 o’clock briefing started around 5:40 and provided only anticlimax. Maybe the president knew better than to try to top himself. With the vice president and the head of the Food and Drug Administration joining in, Trump released a blizzard of numbers—most of them very happy numbers indeed: declines in new cases, for example, in New York and Louisiana.

Few public speakers reveal their disdain for prepared remarks more than our president; it might be a reflection of his well-known disdain for the written word. With a text in hand, written by some faceless factotum, Trump’s voice falls into a phlegmatic purr and his heavy-lidded eyes remain glued to the page. Only when he wants to throw in his own two cents does his voice take on the more familiar animated tone.

I enjoy the obiter dicta much more than the recitation, partly for the mysterious questions they raise, partly for the mental chaos they suggest. “We ask every American to maintain vigilance in hygiene and social distancing and voluntary use of face coverings,” he read sleepily. “It’s exciting to see.” And then whoosh! Out flies the errant, incipient thought: “We have a lot of talent involved, from governors down to people that just stand there and help you with the doors.”

Suddenly the chasm opens up beneath our feet. Who are these helpful door people? Why did they enter the president’s brain at that moment? Could it be because he just walked through a door that one of these helpful people opened?

These are the moments, these are the questions, that keep us coming back to the president’s briefings—and that bring the sense of sorry deflation when he ends the briefings abruptly. Yesterday evening, after more encouraging numbers from the FDA chief and the vice president, along with more gratitude, graciously accepted, from both for the president’s visionary leadership, Trump gave out an unexpected thank you to the reporters, turned, stepped from the podium, and shuffled through an open door (aha!) back to his office.

There will be more briefings and, God willing, more reports. As for now, I am off to the CVS before it runs out of Clorox.