Everything was downhill from there, as the world knows. The news got worse, and the regular briefings were moved inside, to the claustrophobic oubliette known as the White House press briefing room. Reporters grew nasty; the president got nastier. The briefings touched bottom in late April. Evidently jazzed by an Oval Office conversation with a scientist from the Department of Homeland Security, the president took the podium and contemplated the possible effects of light and disinfectant on the virus. With the world watching in horror, he allowed his mind to drift into nightmare, which he seemed to mistake for a thought experiment.
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“Supposing you brought the light into the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way,” he mused. “I see the disinfectant where it 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 mental image of the president wielding a colonoscopy tube ensured that the briefings would never be the same.
But now the administration has brought them back, with the president appearing solo and for the most part well scripted, and no scientific or other advisers in sight, a strategic move forced by necessity. As his poll numbers search for their own bottom, and his Democratic opponent watches from a distance as they sink, Trump has been attempting to fashion an un-Trumpian image: soft-spoken, reasonable, realistic, open to argument … nice. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
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The new era of briefings began with a series of concessions that would have been unthinkable earlier in the month. It’s almost as if someone handed the president his own folder labeled Things Trump Will Never Say and forced him to recite them anyway. The pandemic, he said, “will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.” This was “something I don’t like saying about things,” he added, which isn’t true at all: The president takes undeniable relish in limning the disasters that await the country should it be swinish enough not to reelect him. No one thinks of Donald “American Carnage” Trump as President Pollyanna. What he means is he dislikes speaking negatively on matters that he is personally involved in, and predicting bad news about the virus implicates him in the bad news. This was a first.
At one briefing last week he showed a chart of “different statistics and different rates of success and, I guess you could say also, things that we can do better on.” Until that moment in the Trump presidency, the category of “things we can do better on” did not exist; ontologically, such things were akin to heffalumps and jackalopes. He acknowledged that the $600 in supplemental unemployment insurance enacted earlier this year “worked out well” even though “I was against that original decision”—an admission that veered close to saying he’d once committed an error in judgment. After threatening earlier in the month to cut off federal aid to schools that failed to provide in-class teaching this fall, he conceded that school districts “may need to delay reopening,” depending on the local advance of the virus. He even seemed to second-guess his dearest indulgence. Asked by one interviewer whether he ever regretted his tweeting, he replied, “Often. Too often.”