This week Donald Trump announced the departure of a press secretary who differed from all predecessors in a basic way: She didn’t do the job.
In more than eight months in office, this press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, appeared frequently on Fox programs but never once held a White House briefing for reporters. Three of her predecessors in the Trump era—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders—appeared often enough in the White House press room for their briefing styles to become the basis for Saturday Night Live cold-open routines. (This was before Sanders suspended briefings in her final months on the job.) Grisham’s briefings couldn’t be mimicked, because they didn’t occur.
Her successor will also be someone who differs from anyone who has held the job before. The new secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, will be the first press secretary to begin the job with a bone-dry reservoir of trust and goodwill from the press.
Through the modern history of this job—which probably begins with Steve Early, spokesman for Franklin Delano Roosevelt through most of his long years in office—press secretaries have been in an impossible situation. They need to be discreet enough about an administration’s internal dealings that the president will still trust them. But they also need to be open enough that reporters will still think the press secretary is trying to get them closer to, rather than farther away from, the truth. They need to speak “the truth,” to maintain trust and respect from the press. But not “the full truth”—not every single detail they know—to maintain trust from the president and other officials.
Finding the “right” position is a day-by-day struggle. If a president can’t trust a press secretary to keep some things quiet, then the secretary will be left in the dark, away from the White House inner circle. Then if the reporters realize that a press secretary is an outsider, his or her influence practically vanishes. But if reporters find out later on that a secretary was withholding information that could have been shared—or, worse, sending false signals—then the damage to the press secretary is even worse.
In the days before Trump, awareness of this struggle is what distinguished the best press secretaries. Some of them come straight from jobs on “the other side” of the press/politics divide. For instance, Jay Carney went from Time magazine to become an Obama press secretary; Ron Nessen was an NBC News correspondent and then worked for Gerald Ford. Some are longtime aides and confidants of a president. Jody Powell, a young campaign staffer, represented Jimmy Carter as press secretary, and Bill Moyers played a similar role with Lyndon Johnson. Some are “public affairs professionals,” who have done this job in other circumstances. For instance: Dana Perino, who became press secretary at the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, or Marlin Fitzwater, whoworked for Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.
They came from different backgrounds, but all these previous press secretaries tried to strike the balance between giving out too much information, and not enough.
Under Donald Trump, only one press secretary seemed even to recognize this challenge. From day one, the unfortunate Sean Spicer was stuck trying to defend “largest Inaugural crowd in history!” claims. Spicer’s awareness of his preposterous position was the most appealing thing about his brief time on the briefing-room podium.
With Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the struggle abated, since her remarks were aimed at a one-person audience, Trump himself. Stephanie Grisham avoided the tension by not dealing with the press at all, and confining herself to Fox. Kayleigh McEnany is one more step down this road, since her background as a public figure was as a cable-tv “panelist” during the 2016 campaign, where her role was not to express a “conservative” or even GOP-loyalist perspective but instead to defend whatever it was that Donald Trump had done or said.
McEnany, like her press-bashing boss, [has taken every] opportunity to attack the news media. “The media’s best hope is for Donald Trump to suspend his rallies,” she said. “They have been wanting him to stop this, they know it’s his avenue to speak directly to the American people. So we’re going to follow the president’s lead, we’re not going to cave to the media and Joe Biden.”
There appears to be nowhere McEnany isn’t willing to follow Trump, even dating back to his conspiracies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. In 2012, when Trump was accusing America’s first black president of being born in Kenya and was thus ineligible to serve, McEnany chimed in support of the unfounded theory, tweeting, “How I Met Your Brother—Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows.”
In a 2016 CNN segment archived by Media Matters, McEnany stepped out to defend the then-candidate’s infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy” hot-mic moment, shrugging off the remark as “implie[d] consent.” [JF note: I wrote about the “grab ’em” episode at the time, here.]
Every press secretary has ups and downs in his or her relationship with the media. They add to their store of trust in certain moments; they run it down at others. The struggle between duties to the president and to the public, between saying too much and saying too little, defined the job.
Now the struggle is over. No previous press secretary has started the job with no cushion of credibility whatsoever. That’s where this one begins.
For the record, here are several events of the past few days, any one of which would have been week-defining news in previous eras:
Donald Trump personally fired two inspectors-general. One was Michael Atkinson, whom Trump made clear he was punishing for bringing attention to his Ukraine call. The other was Glenn Fine, set to oversee disbursement of coronavirus relief funds. Inspectors general have been part of the federal landscape for many decades. For a president to fire one, let alone two, is rare enough that at the moment I can’t recall any other examples. As Benjamin Wittes asked on the Lawfare site, “Why Is Trump’s Inspector General Purge Not a National Scandal?”
Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy who dismissed Captain Brett Crozier, of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, offered a resignation-under-pressure, after he gratuitously attacked Crozier as “too naive or too stupid” during a speech in front of members of Crozier’s crew. Along with hundreds of his crew members, Crozier himself has tested positive for the virus.
Donald Trump’s marathon daily “briefings” on the virus situation, which I argued ten days ago were becoming substitutes for campaign rallies, have become so unhinged that even his loyalists on the Wall Street Journal editorial page today called for their cessation, because they were hurting Trump. For instance:
On Tuesday Mr. Trump was asked, in a typically tendentious question, why he had compared the coronavirus to the flu. Instead of saying he had been hoping for the best but was wrong when he'd said that, he got into a fight over the severity of the flu. This sort of exchange usually devolves into a useless squabble that helps Mr. Trump’s critics and contributes little to public understanding.
The President’s outbursts against his political critics are also notably off key at this moment. This isn’t impeachment, and Covid-19 isn’t shifty Schiff. It’s a once-a-century threat to American life and livelihood.
From the stalwarts on the WSJ editorial page, this is almost as notable as a brushback from Fox & Friends.
As I write, the total of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States is approaching half a million, and the death toll is approaching 15,000. As of three weeks ago, the greatest-ever number of new weekly claims for unemployment was around 250,000. Two weeks ago, more than 3 million Americans filed. One week ago, another 6 million-plus did. Today, yet another 6 million.
In his rally-briefing yesterday at the White House, Donald Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending that Americans wear masks or similar face coverings when in range of other people.
You can see C-SPAN’s coverage of the whole briefing here, including Trump’s repeated emphases that this was a voluntary recommendation—“You don’t have to do it”—and that he, personally, would not comply. Important fact note: Trump, unlike virtually all other Americans, is exposed only to people who have already been tested for the virus, as reported here by NPR.
Around time 3:50 in this clip, he says “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Then more definitively:
This is voluntary. You don’t have to do it.
I am choosing not to do it.
This is not the first time presidents have been called upon to deliver public health messages, nor even the first time during a presidential election year.
In the fall of 1976, Gerald Ford—who had never been elected either president or vice president, but who became president two years earlier, when Richard Nixon resigned—was in a close race for reelection. He ultimately lost, very narrowly, to the former one-term governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. (For the record: I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign staff then.) The race became close enough that practically every “controversial” stand that Ford took could arguably have made a difference in the outcome.
Among the issues that fall was swine flu. Starting early in that election year, public-health officials had been worrying that the newly mutated virus could reach pandemic proportions and become a modern counterpart to the deadly flu of 1918. They launched an all-out effort to produce a vaccine, and to get as many Americans as possible inoculated.
The story is long and tangled, both in scientific and in political terms. You can read fascinating accounts of what health officials got right, and wrong, in the 1970s swine flu era here and here, with links to other reports. One central issue was that the vaccine available by the fall of the year was a “live virus” version, rather than “killed virus,” which entailed a greater (though statistically still small) chance of side effects.
For the moment the relevant point is: The country’s political leadership was asking the public to take a controversial step, namely getting swine flu shots. And the ultimate political leader, Gerald Ford himself as president, prominently set an example by doing this himself. Thus the photo you see above.
The obligation to model the behavior they would like others to adopt is one all presidents have been aware of, even if they have imperfectly complied.
They talk about faith, and most of them have gone to religious services. They say that citizens should pay taxes, and they produce evidence that they have done so themselves. They urge people to be charitable, and they know that their own donations will be scrutinized. They talk about families, and they are photographed with their spouse and children—no matter what they’re doing when photographers aren’t there.
Some part of their brains recognizes the value of connecting with “what we [as a government] say” with “what I [as a person] do.” And they make sure the public sees evidence of them setting this example — as Barack Obama did during the H1N1 flu wave of 2009.
Trump’s reaction to the mask-wearing recommendation—fine for the rest of you, but that’s not for me—is of course far from the only illustration of his feeling that he need not set a personal example. See also: military or civic service; marital fidelity; scrupulousness about the appearance of financial conflict or family favoritism; recognition of “no person is above the law”; etc.
It is also not the most unreasonable stand he has taken. As NPR noted, everyone he meets is tested for the disease—so he is not likely to catch it from any of them, and they will be monitored after contact with him. And as Trump himself pointed out yesterday, the Oval Office is not a surgical operating room, and masks would seem odder there than in some other venues.
But Gerald Ford also had reasons not to follow the advice he was giving the country. He could have said: I’m extremely busy; I’m in the middle of an intense reelection campaign; I have great medical care around me if I should get sick. I am thinking about the reception Gerald Ford would have met, if he had said: I want all Americans to be inoculated. I am just choosing not to do it myself.
The episode I’m about to mention has been receiving saturation social-media attention for the past few hours, as I write. But because the accelerating torrent of news tends to blast away each day’s events and make them hard to register—even a moment like this, which I expect will be included in histories of our times—I think it is worth noting this episode while it is fresh.
Until a few days ago, Brett Crozier would have been considered among the U.S. Navy’s most distinguished commanders.
He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1992 and then entered training as a naval aviator. He was qualified first as a helicopter pilot, and then in the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter planes. He was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz during the Iraq war, and he held an ascending series of staff and command jobs—as you can read in his Pentagon biography, here. He received a master’s degree from the Naval War College; he became executive officer (second in command) of the nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan; and he became commander of the amphibious ship Blue Ridge. Then late last year, as a Navy captain, he took command of the Nimitz-class nuclear carrier USS Theodore Rooseveltand the 4,000-plus people in its crew.
Last week, coronavirus sickness spread rapidly among the Roosevelt’s crew members. Five days ago, on Sunday, Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle published an email by Crozier, addressed to his naval superiors, asking that the ship be diverted from its normal duties so that sick crew members could be treated and the spread of disease could be slowed. Gafni and Garofoli did not say how they had received the email, but it had been copied to a large number of recipients and not marked as sensitive; Crozier must have known it was likely to become public when he sent it.
The four-page letter, which you can read in full at the Chronicle’s site, used the example of recent cruise-ship infection disasters to argue that closed shipboard environments were the worst possible location for people with the disease. It laid out the case for immediate action to protect the Roosevelt’s crew, and ended this way:
7. Conclusion. Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed US. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. A portion of the crew (approximately 10%) would have to stay aboard to run the reactor plant, sanitize the ship, ensure security, and provide for contingency response to emergencies.
This is a necessary risk. It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety of our Sailors. Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care...
This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors. Request all available resources to find NAVADMIN and CDC compliant quarantine rooms for my entire crew as soon as possible.
“Breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.” “We are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors.” “Unnecessary risk.” In any walk of life, such language would have great power. Within the military—where terms like faith and trust and care have life-and-death meaning, and are the fundamental reason people follow leaders into combat—these words draw the starkest possible line. This course is right. The other course is wrong. Thus a leader spoke on behalf of the people “entrusted to our care.”
The letter got widespread attention in the press, and became a PR problem for the Pentagon and the administration. A commander was in effect saying that the command structure was mis-serving the troops; the command structure was not amused.
Yesterday, April 2, four days after the letter’s appearance, the acting secretary of the Navy formally relieved Crozier of command of the Theodore Roosevelt. That is, Thomas Modly, the acting secretary who was himself a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator, fired Crozier from one of the most consequential command roles in the Navy. Crozier’s offense, according to Modly, was exercising “extremely poor judgment” in letting his plea become public. Also, Crozier’s letter had “unnecessarily raised the alarm of the families of our sailors and Marines.” Modly was quoted in Stars and Stripes saying that the letter “creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true.” A commander had gone outside channels and created a “perception” problem.
Last night, soon after Crozier had been “relieved,” he took his last walk off the ship as commander, down a gangway to the dock in Guam. As he left, the men and women serving with him signaled where their respect and loyalties lay. Videos that, based on current information, appear to be authentic, showed the crew heralding him on his departure, with supportive cheers of “Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” This account from Stars and Stripes gives a sample. Based on information available as I write, it appears that he took a stand, and is paying the price.
Brett Crozier will no longer be one of the Navy’s most powerful commanders. He remains in the service, but his command has been taken away.
At his rally/press conference this evening, March 29, Donald Trump effectively said that doctors and hospitals in New York are selling masks “out the back door,” accounting for current shortages.
You can see it for yourself here, on this C-SPAN video, starting at time 12:00. Trump notes the shortage of masks and says:
Something’s going on. And you ought to look at it as reporters.
Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?
Through his public career, Trump has been notable for his projection, in the psychologists’ sense of that term. What he is aware of in himself is what he claims to detect in others.
For instance: He has a long history of making up “sources”—his posing as “John Miller” in leaks to New York reporters back in his real estate days, and in his “lots of people are saying” stories. Thus he accuses reporters of doing the same. His own children are dealt into his business arrangements. Thus this is his point of attack against Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.
If you asked most Americans why emergency rooms and ICUs might be running short of masks, the last possibility they would think of is that the masks were “going out the back door.” We are talking about doctors, nurses, and medical staff working around the clock in increasingly difficult circumstances. We are talking about hospital administrators now thinking about beds, ventilators, space in temporary morgues. All of these health staffers are coping with sick and dying people, while wondering when they, themselves, might get the disease.
It had not even occurred to me that people like these might be skimming off masks and selling them.
But this is what occurred to Donald Trump.
Projection. It’s something he might have thought of himself.
This afternoon, Trump put out a tweet that rivaled “out the back door” in its bottomless lack of empathy. He said:
Trump is a problem, but clearly he cannot help himself. No one who could talk about his personal ratings, when the public was dealing with economic collapse and mounting deaths, would do this if he had any sense of empathy, decency, or impulse control.
The 53 Republicans who control the Senate could do something on the country’s behalf.
But the number who have spoken up about Trump’s descent these past few days?
Just before the 2016 election, and then again after its results became clear, I did a series of Atlantic items on a challenge I thought the press was not prepared for.
The challenge was dealing with a major political figure—Donald Trump—who fit no previous pattern of how presidents or other major figures conceived of “truth” versus “lies.”
All politicians, like all people, will lie about matters large and small. But most politicians, like most people, usually lie for a reason. They want to avoid blame or embarrassment. They want someone to like or treat them better. They want to paint themselves in a better light. They’ve talked themselves into “believing” a more comfortable version of perhaps-painful truths.
We all know examples from daily life. In the life of public figures, it means things like: Richard Nixon lying about Watergate (in hopes of not getting caught). Bill Clinton lying about his affairs (ditto). Lyndon Johnson concealing what he knew about the worsening situation in Vietnam (so as not to complicate his re-election chances). FDR concealing his physical limitations (so as not to have them complicate his political and policy goals).
So in dealing with the political universe as of the summer of 2015—the time when Donald Trump entered the presidential race—the press could start by asking: What’s the reason a certain statement might be a lie? What would a president — a mayor, a senator— have to gain by shading the truth? The related assumption was that people wouldn’t go to the trouble of crafting a lie without a reason to do so. Lies are harder to remember than the truth; they involve more work in getting people to back up your story; they involve the risk that you’ll be caught.
What made Donald Trump different was not how much more frequently he lies — though he does so at a prodigious rate. (As Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’sfact-check team, among others, have tirelessly chronicled.)
Rather the difference was that Trump so plainly recognized no distinction between true and false—between what the “facts” showed and what he wanted them to be, between what he wanted people to think and what they could see for themselves. Some public figures are unusually “willing” to lie; Trump seemed not even to notice he was doing so. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous book “On Bullshit” bears on this phenomenon—people who just talk, in a slurry of “true” and “false,” with no concern or even awareness of the difference between the two.
In Trump’s case it became clear long ago that he lacked the mental filter that alerts most people to the boundary between true and false. He would probably sail through any lie-detector test. He does not care if his claim can be instantly disproved (eg, his “landslide” victory, actually one of the narrowest in history). He does not care if his lies contradict one another, as when he attributes the same “someone told me” story to different sources from one day to the next, or rolls out his ludicrous “Sir” anecdotes. He does not care if a lie does him any good—who believes, or cares, whether his uncle was “a great super genius” as a professor at MIT? He does not care that the Adonis-like heroic portrait that has hung for years at Mar-a-Lago would be a source of mirth for most viewers.
“The news media are not built for someone like this,” I wrote two months before Trump was sworn in:
[We have] as president-elect a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care….
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.
None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst [that “millions of people” had snuck into the polling places and voted, presumably for Democrats], TheWashington Post and TheLA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.”...
By contrast.. the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.
What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.
It’s nearly three-and-a-half years later. Everything we saw about Trump on the campaign trail we have seen from him in the White House, including the limitless fantasy-lying.
I submit that these three-and-a-half years later, much of the press has still not rebuilt itself, to cope with a time or a person like this. Or with a political party like the subservient Trump-era GOP.
To choose only a small subset of examples, from only the past three days’ worth of history, here are some illustrations. These are words and deeds that, each on its own, would likely have been major black-mark news events in other eras. Now they are just part of the daily onrush.
1) Us, and them. Two days ago, on March 27, Donald Trump signed in the Oval Office the most expensive spending bill in American history. Getting it enacted required sustained, major efforts from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and from Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who got every one of his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill.
After Lyndon Johnson relied on Republican support to get his civil-rights and Medicare legislation through the Congress, he made sure that the Republican leaders from the House and Senate were with him for the signing ceremonies, to receive some of the first pens he used. (When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the Oval Office, he had only Democratic legislators around him—but that was because of near-unanimous Republican opposition to the bill.)
Structurally Trump’s situation this week was like LBJ’s: he was signing a bill the other party had played a crucial role in passing. But when Trump signed the bill yesterday, not a single Democratic legislator was present. Pelosi said she had not been invited.
Every other president has tried, at some point, to expand his support beyond those who originally voted for him (which is why all others have at some point had popularity ratings of 60 percent or 70 percent). Every other one has at some point tried to express the interests of the entire public, not just “the base.” Trump has never done either—and that failure is so baked-in that it barely registers now.
Obama used precious months in his first year trying to get GOP support for his medical plan; he failed; and a running press critique thereafter was that he should have been doing more to “reach out” to the other side. (Recall the whole “Have a drink with Mitch McConnell” motif.) I haven’t seen any columns fretting about Trump’s failure to “reach out” to Pelosi or Schumer. “That’s just Trump.”
2) “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In this past Friday’s version of his marathon TV sessions—the supposed “health” briefings that have become daily hour-long substitutes for Trump’s campaign rallies—Trump said that most of the governors now requesting federal aid were friendly to him. But not all, and the ones who weren’t “appreciative” had better watch their step.
“Q. You say the governors are not appreciate of what the federal government has done. What more—
“A: [breaking in}: I think the governor of Washington [Jay Inslee] is a failed presidential candidate. He leveled out at zero in the polls. He’s constantly tripping and—I guess ‘complaining’ would be a nice way of saying it…
In Michigan, all she does is—she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying [whining voice] ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault…’
“I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job…
“Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him—I’m a different kind of guy—I tell him, Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him.
“Don’t call the woman in Michigan….
“You know what I say, If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
What would have made news about this passage in any other era?
First, the naked favor-trading: What Trump is saying about the states of Washington and Michigan is more or less what led the House to impeach him last year, regarding Ukraine. That is: threatened use of federal power and favors, to reward political friends and punish political enemies—and in this case for unconcealed, openly stated political reasons.
Second, the crassness and cruelty, to leaders coping with life-and-death emergencies in their home states. “A failed presidential candidate.” “She has no idea what’s doing on.”
Third, the misogyny: Repeatedly avoiding the name of Gretchen Whitmer, elected last year as governor of Michigan, and calling her “the woman in Michigan.” Check the C-SPAN video if you’re in doubt about the dismissive tone of these remarks, and recall Trump’s frequent references to “Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Nancy Pelosi.”
There was some brief press followup on all these points, but mainly it was again normalized as Trump being Trump.
3) Lies, lies, lies. I’ll leave to the other chroniclers a complete list of the several dozen lies in Trump’s live-broadcast appearances in the past few days. On Thursday, he went on at length about the bounty of tariff payments that the U.S. was receiving “from China”—which revealed either a black-is-white misunderstanding of how tariffs work, or a Harry Frankfurt-style indifference to the bullshit of what he was saying. (None of the White House reporters challenged him about his tariff claim.)
Here is just one consequential lie to stand for the rest: Trump repeatedly claims, and has done so every day this past week, that no one possibly could have seen this pandemic coming, and that everything was great until just a few weeks ago.
Of the countless reasons to know this is false, consider this Politico story on the detailed, 69-page playbook the National Security Council had prepared for coping with just this kind of emergency. The exact timing, origin, and biology of this new disease of course came as surprises. But the consequences and choices are ones any competent government would have foreseen.
Just a month before the 9/11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, George W. Bush received a memo famously titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Many years later, press analyses still pointed this out. For years after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, congressional Republicans held several dozen hearings, to determine whether the Obama administration should have been more prepared.
In the past few days’ papers, I see no followup on this NSC report. Press standards for covering Trump have already factored in, and thus implicitly forgiven, the corruption and incompetence.
4) Repeating the mistakes of 2015. Starting in the summer of 2015, cable channels began running live Trump rallies, because they were so “interesting.” People watched. Ratings went up. And by Election Day, Trump had received billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. One calculation of the value was $5 billion; another, $2 billion. In either case, a lot.
Without this coverage—this decision by TV outlets, to improve their ratings by giving limitless free, live airtime to Trump—he could never have become the Republican nominee, let alone the president.
Trump himself clearly views the “briefings” about the “virus” — really, rallies about his greatness—as this year’s substitute for the live rallies he can no longer hold. But the cable and broadcast outlets, as if 2015 and 2016 had never occurred, are covering his daily briefings as they did the rallies of days gone by. For more on why this is a mistake, please see this suggestion from Jay Rosen of PressThink, about how the media could shift to “emergency setting”, and this from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the problem of nonstop live coverage of Trump telling lies.
The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.
In the second of his two extended live-TV performances yesterday—a White House coronavirus update, following a Fox News “virtual town hall”—Donald Trump said that prospects in the effort to control the virus were improving. As you can see starting at time 2:30 of this C-Span video, he said:
I’m very proud to be your president, I can tell you that.
There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and see light at the end of the tunnel.
Most of today’s living Americans were born in 1980 or afterward. (The median age in the U.S. is now just over 38.) Most of them would not instantly recognize the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,”
But Donald Trump was born in 1946, and he would know this phrase. During his teenaged years and his early 20s, when hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries were being drafted for service in Vietnam, and when more than 50,000 of them were killed, those words were among the most infamous parts of the American lexicon. Like “it became necessary to destroy the town, in order to save it”—a possibly apocryphal phrase attributed to a U.S. military officer, about the scorched-earth policy—“light at the end of the tunnel” came to symbolize the sustained folly of the war in general, and the illusion that success was near at hand.
The closest post-Vietnam examples would probably be early proclamations about the Iraq war: Dick Cheney’s pre-war assurance that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and George W. Bush’s triumphal appearance under a “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Or, early in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Among pre-Vietnam examples, a counterpart might be Neville Chamberlain in 1938, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in Munich, and then returning home to declare that they had ensured “peace for our time.”
Gen. William C. Westmoreland and a lawyer for CBS argued yesterday over one of the most memorable phrases of the Vietnam War, with the lawyer suggesting that the general had misled Washington into believing there was “light at the end of tunnel” in 1967 and the general saying he had not used that expression.
“I never had quite that degree of optimism,” General Westmoreland told the jury at his libel trial against CBS in Federal Court in Manhattan.
But the lawyer, David Boies, showed the witness a Nov. 26, 1967, cable he had sent during a visit to Washington to his deputy in Saigon, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, in which the phrase “some light at the end of the tunnel” was bracketed in quotation marks.
People of my parents’ generation would hesitate or catch themselves before “peace for our time.” News-conscious people of my children’s generation would recognize the freight that comes with saying “mission accomplished” or “heck of a job”
And people of Trump’s generation, and mine, would recognize that “light at the end of the tunnel” is not what you would say if you wanted to convey genuine confidence, any more than you would say, “I am not a crook” if you wanted to convey genuine innocence. You cannot have been alive in that time and not have absorbed this phrase.
The typically young members of a White House speechwriting staff—the people who worked on the script from which Trump read yesterday—would not know this phrase from their own experience. But in normal White Houses, they would have looked these things up. (When I worked, in my 20s, on a White House speechwriting staff, our “spare time” reading was from the volumes of past presidential addresses.)
But Trump himself would have to have been familiar with this phrase. So yesterday, as he saw the note cards, did he see the phrase—and not remember it? Did he remember, and not care? I don’t know, and it doesn’t make a difference in his response to the current pandemic. But it is one more illustration of things we have heard and seen, which we would never have seen before.
Two other for-the-record elements from Trump’s public performances yesterday.
With several of his scientific experts behind him, explained how much worse the 1918 flu pandemic was:
“That was a flu where if you got it, you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying.”
In fact, the mortality rate during that devastating worldwide illness was between 2 and 3 percent—not around 50 percent, as Trump claimed. Most of the experts around Trump knew better; none of them said anything. I can’t quickly think of a case of another president making such a wildly inaccurate basic-fact claim, without a quick “For the record, the president meant to say...” cleanup.
Three times yesterday, Trump said that his goal for “opening up the country” again was Easter Day.
During his Fox town hall: “I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that.
It’s such an important day for other reasons. I’ll make it an important day for this too I would love to have the country opened up an rarin’ to go by Easter.”
After the town hall, he said: “Easter’s a very special day for me. And I see it in that timeline I am thinking about. And I say, Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full.”
And when answering press questions about “why Easter?” later in the day: “It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful timeline.”
This year’s Easter Day is April 12, or 19 days after Trump’s announcement. As of yesterday afternoon, while Trump was talking about the Easter “timeline,” the official confirmed-case count for the United States was nearing 47,000, and the death toll was in the low 600s. I’ll note in this space where the numbers stand 19 days from now.
Being president is even harder than it looks. Success in the job requires a wider range of talents than any one human being has ever had: Private persuasive and horse-trading skills. Public ability to inspire. The analytical capacity to grasp decisions that lack any “good” answer. The emotional capacity to read the moods and needs of the country, as those change. Physical stamina. Psychological balance. A ruthless ability to judge character, especially among allies and staff members. A similarly steely ability to block out bitter and hurtful criticism—otherwise, you couldn’t function—without becoming deaf to warnings of genuine problems. And that’s just the start of the list.
As I noted in a piece about Barack Obama as he neared the end of his first term, these demands of office are so many, so different, and so complex that the question is not whether a given president will fail in office. All of them will fall short in some parts of the job. The relevant question is whether the areas of each president’s inevitable failures will matter more, or less, than those of his success. John Dickerson went into the ramifications of “The Hardest Job in the World” in a big Atlantic story two years ago. (Update: Dickerson did an eloquent brief segment on the requirements of presidential leadership-in-crisis, on Face the Nation yesterday.)
Because this job is impossible, people who hold it go through a predictable change of attitude toward their living predecessors. On arrival, new presidents usually think: Look at me! I’ve won the biggest prize in public life. I don’t know why these other guys messed things up so badly. Let me show them how it’s done!
The years go on; the problems mount; Congress is a headache; the public can’t be pleased. Predictably, presidents develop “strange new respect” for the only other human beings who understand what they are going through. Usually when running for the office, presidential candidates criticize those who came before—directly, if mounting a challenge, or indirectly, in suggesting how much better things will be under new management. But after a president has been roughed up for a while, he’s more careful in his criticism. (Really, it’s hard to find on-the-record examples of many of the first 44 presidents criticizing their predecessors.) Sometimes in public, more often in private, presidents go to those who have left office to ask: What do you think? Or: Can you help us out?
This reality was the premise of a question an hour into Donald Trump’s very long press appearance yesterday afternoon. In the exchange—which you can see starting at time 59:00 of this video—a reporter asked Trump:
In previous crises like the tsunami, and Katrina, past presidents have called their predecessors and said, Hey I need you to step in, and do something like that.
Do you have any interest in reaching out to presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter—
Before he finished the question, Trump was talking over him to challenge the premise. Trump answered:
Look. I have the best people in the world. I think we’re doing an extraordinary job.
If you look at the H1N1 [under Obama], if you look at that whole—that was a disaster, that was a tough period of time for our country. You look at so many other things that weren’t handled very well, whether it’s Katrina [under GW Bush] or something else.
Look, I respect everybody. But I feel I have an incredible team and I think we’re doing an incredible job….
I don’t want to disturb them, bother them. I don’t think I’m going to learn much.
What this reveals about Donald Trump’s self-regard and Dunning-Krugerism is too obvious to need elaboration. Also his intolerance for even imagined criticism, and his instinct to respond with an attack. In this case, the question invited him to step into the long tradition of presidents facing crisis. Instead he used it not only to elevate himself but also to diminish the others. (“So many things that weren’t handled very well.”) Others presidents likely thought such things to themselves, especially early in a term. But they would not have said them—on nationwide TV, during a crisis, when supposedly trying to inspire, unite, and heal.
Two other remarkable events of the day:
When told by a questioner that Mitt Romney had isolated himself (presumably after meetings with his Senate colleague Rand Paul, who yesterday tested positive for the disease), Trump acted surprised. “Romney’s in isolation?” he asked. When told it was true, he said, with obvious sarcasm, “Gee, that’s too bad.” (You can judge the tone for yourself, starting at time 43:40 of this clip.)
Again, many public leaders might have thought this of their rivals. No others would have said it out loud.
I mentioned earlier the extraordinary position of Anthony Fauci, during the pandemic. He has a lifetime’s worth of credibility behind his words and advice. But he is being made to stand almost every day, on live TV, behind a president saying things that Fauci then needs--tactfully—to correct.
The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas had an interview with Fauci yesterday morning, in which he said that the administration had not pressured him to be more visibly supportive — “I’m not sure why.” Later in the day, Jon Cohen of Sciencepublished an interview unlike any I have read from a figure who was still serving within Trump’s orbit. A sample:
Q: You're standing there saying nobody should gather with more than 10 people and there are almost 10 people with you on the stage….
A: I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.
Q: What about the travel restrictions?… It just doesn't comport with facts.
A: I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?
What I want, as of today, March 23, is for him to stay there, as long as he can.
These things were notable about yesterday’s installment of what has become the regular daily White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic:
That it happened at all. Early last year, Donald Trump directed Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then his press secretary, to stop conducting daily press briefings, which had been routine for press secretaries for decades. Sanders held her last briefing a little more than a year ago. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, has not held any at all. Until this month, Trump himself had appeared at very few formal press conferences. The last one I find a record of was in September, 2018. Instead Trump would talk at informal press scrums, usually while walking to or from a helicopter.
Now Trump is on TV, answering questions, day after day, including the weekends. This brings us to…
That it was a virtual campaign rally, At two of the briefings this week, Trump had dropped his previous pooh-poohing of the virus threat, and his personal criticism of media figures and other politicians, and had instead struck a somber, “we’re in this together” tone. As I noted here, this shift in tone was greeted by some in the press as a sign of Trump’s new statesmanship.
In the past two days, Trump has been back to the more accustomed tone of tweets and his rallies. In those settings he has had two constant themes: that he is so great, and that his critics are such cheating losers, each point usually based on information that was false.
The tone, and the false data, returned yesterday. Much of what Trump said was false: Most dramatically, his claim that the FDA had just approved use of an anti-malaria drug for treatment of COVID-19, and that it would be a “game-changer.” (FDA officials immediately clarified that they had done no such thing.)
Trump’s new fondness for these “briefings,” and their increasing conversion into Trump campaign rallies with scientists rather than local-government officials as the supporting cast, should cause cable-news producers to reflect on the path they are headed down.
In the year after Trump declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015, cable channels ran so many of his “Lock her up!” rallies live and at full length, that the coverage amounted to hugely valuable free campaign publicity. One source calculated the free-airtime values as being worth several billion dollars.
From Trump’s point of view, it makes sense to turn these events into the unfiltered airtime he used to count on at mass rallies. From the media’s point of view, it made sense to cover the first few of them live. But given the rising falsehood quotient in what Trump says, and his determination to cut off or divert questioners who try to ask about these falsehoods, cable networks should stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.
Their real reason for live coverage back during Trump’s rise was that ratings went up: People wanted to watch these spectacles. Even if that’s still true, we certainly have learned that Trump will use most of his time to attack and lie, and that panelists’ corrections never catch up. In time of crisis, cable-news channels are making the public less informed, and thus increasing public danger, by providing such a convenient platform for lies.
Also, as a practical matter, if the briefings were no longer covered live, Trump would lose interest in attending himself. Then the scientists could come back on stage—and eventually they could be covered live again.
That Trump edited the script. As Jabin Botsford, a Washington Post photographer noted, Trump scratched out the word “corona” in his speaking script, and replaced it with “Chinese,” so that he would talk about the threat of “the Chinese virus.” When he read most of the rest of the prepared text, Trump sounded as if he were seeing it for the first time. This was a word he cared about.
That he ended with … this question. I lack the spirit to go into all of this now. You can read the story here and here. Again, nothing like it had ever happened at the White House before.
Update: As I write I see that Jay Rosen, at his Press Think blog, has come to the same conclusion about live event coverage. His item covers many other steps in what he calls “emergency mode” handling of Trump, but on live events he says:
Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us….
We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.
I agree with that, and with Rosen’s conclusion, addressed to readers:
We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place
This afternoon, at the now-daily press presentation about the virus and disease, Trump was asked why he used this term—given the bitter public and governmental response it has evoked in China, and recent reports of racist anti-Chinese reactions inside the United States. (For instance, the starting entry of a widely shared Twitter thread yesterday from Jiayang Fan, a writer for the New Yorker, is below.)
At today’s conference, Cecilia Vega, of ABC, mentioned the possibility of racist backlash to “Chinese Virus.” She directly asked Trump, “Why do you keep using this?” (You can see the exchange starting at time 1:44 of this video.)
Trump snapped back with what amounted to two points: First, that he was just calling things by their real name, and second, that he was getting back at China for suggestions that the U.S. was really to blame.
Why keep using the term?
Because it comes from China. That’s why. It’s not racist at all. I want to be accurate.
I have great love for all of the people from our country. [sic] But as you know, China tried to say, that it was caused by American soldiers.
That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen. As long as I’m president.
My purpose for the moment is not to review the full history of pejorative names for diseases—for instance, why syphilis was called “the French disease” by 16th-century Italians, to which the French responded by calling it “the Neapolitan disease.” Nor about the acute sensitivity in China to being seen as a source of filth and disease—something that would be an insult anywhere, but which in China comes with a distinct historical background that makes it particularly inflammatory. (Rough parallel: Think of any familiar defamatory stereotype used against Africans, or Latin Americans, or Jews, or any other group. Then think of a U.S. president using that in tweets and statements.) Nor about the point my colleague Graeme Wood astutely makes: that the real scandal is what the administration does (and fails to do), more than what it says. Nor the likelihood that the animal-human transfer that gave rise to this pandemic probably occurred in wild-animal markets in China. (Evidence suggests that the transfer that gave rise to the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic a dozen years ago took place somewhere in North America, but the disease was not generally known as “the American Flu” or “the Mexican disease.”)
Rather it is to note this moment in the United States’s relationship with its most consequential foreign partner-and-competitor. While the combined public-health and economic catastrophes of the moment are commanding attention, the China-U.S. interaction may have moved in a distinctly darker direction.
Neither the United States nor China is big and dominant enough to force the other country—also big, also dominant—to do something its leadership or public genuinely does not want to do.
But both the United States and China play a large enough role in the other’s economic, strategic, environmental, cultural, and overall situation that each can make life significantly better, or worse for the other—not to mention effects on the rest of the world.
The story of the past nearly five decades, starting in the Nixon-Mao era, is of U.S. and Chinese public and private leaders generally looking for ways to work together as wary partners, more frequently than they looked for ways to confront each other as outright foes. (I described this dynamic in an Atlantic article, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” four years ago.) And the story of the past five years, as I described in that same article, is of sharper and sharper differences between the countries. That was even before the trade-war confrontations of the past three years.
Now the leadership of each country is acting, in public, as if it has nothing to lose by insulting and provoking the other. Witness the accusations from Chinese officials that the U.S. may have intentionally engineered the virus and unleashed it on an unsuspecting Chinese public, or the public use of “Chinese Virus” by a president, in full awareness that it is a flash point on the other side, and the reported private use of “Kung-Flu” by a White House staffer.
Yesterday the Chinese government took a step that even the most grizzled China hands found shocking: It revoked the press credentials for U.S.-citizen reporters from the three leading U.S. newspapers—the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal—and began the process of expelling them from the country.
During the long ups and downs of U.S.-China relations—with the lows of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the U.S. bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999, the Chinese military jet that ran into a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in 2001, the recurring trade disputes, plus the assorted highs—Chinese officials had never taken this step before.
As with most things in China, the logic of this move is probably mostly internal, as part of the ongoing years-long domestic crackdown underway in the time of Xi Jinping. (Alex Dukalskis of The Wilson Center and University College Dublin laid out internal-Chinese dynamics in a tweet thread today.) But it is a very significant escalation of the U.S.-Chinese showdown — and one that, as best I can tell, went unmentioned by the U.S. president yesterday, and today until the press-questioning part of his presentation today.
Late in the press conference, a reporter asked Trump what he thought of the Chinese move, and “what is your message to the Chinese about transparency.” (You can see it starting at time 2:08 here.)
“I’m not happy to see it,” Trump said, as if he were talking about the latest fall in the stock market, or problems for the cruise industry. Then:
I have my disputes with all three of those media groups. I think you know that very well.
But I don’t like seeing that at all. I’m not happy about it at all.
And then he moved on. Just looking at the words, you might imagine it was a Voltaire-like “disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” But if you watch you’ll see that it came across as a minor issue—an occasion for registering his unhappiness with these same three papers, and to shift to something more interesting.
I hope that this most consequential relationship for the U.S. will not be another casualty of the pestilence. But as I write, on March 18, it appears to have taken an under-publicized turn for the worse.
During press questioning at the White House today, Donald Trump was asked whether his tone about the coronavirus challenge had suddenly changed. For weeks, he’d been mocking the virus threat—at rallies, in tweets, and in press remarks. But both yesterday and today, he’d suddenly shifted to warning that the public-health and economic problems were real, and would remain so for a long time.
Trump denied there had been any shift in tone, and said (as you can see here):
“I have always known. This is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic....
“I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”
This is a flat-out lie.
Setting the lead for many Republican politicians and for most coverage on Fox News, Trump had for many weeks pooh-poohed the idea that the virus should be taken seriously.
He has said it was “contained” and “under control” (as McKay Coppins pointed out).
He has said “It’s going to disappear” and, “We have very little problem in this country” (as David Leonhardt pointed out).
He said three weeks ago that the U.S. had “15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (as the White House briefing transcript shows).
He tweeted just eight days ago that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation” (as The Hillpointed out).
From growing global awareness of the disease in January, until his press conference yesterday, March 16, Trump had consistently minimized the medical and economic danger. He frequently likened the virus to the seasonal flu, and at a rally said that criticism of his administration’s virus responses was “a hoax”—indeed, a continuation of the impeachment “hoax” by other means.
That Trump has shifted his tone so dramatically says something about the scale of the disease and its impacts. I hope it says something positive about the upcoming federal commitments to join the effort against it, so far led by governors and mayors.
But that he believes he can baldly zap away all memory of his words and deeds and reinvent himself as the man saving his country from pandemic—another Anthony Fauci, but with executive powers—reveals something about Trump’s mind and character, and something about his assessment of public life.
About his mind it suggests: He lives in the moment, and whatever he wants to be true at this instant, is “true” for him, at least while he’s saying it.
About his assessment of others it indicates: He is betting he can get away with it. At some level he must know that half the press is weary of writing the 900th story pointing out his falsehoods. The other half is hungry for some way to show its “balance,” and to avoid using the plain word “lie.” And meanwhile the constituency Trump said would stay with him if he “shot someone on Fifth Avenue” may still be aboard.
An assessment on CNN just after the press conference indicated the kind of response Trump might be betting on. The estimable Dana Bash said of Trump’s comments, “He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today and yesterday.” We’ll see what the online stories tonight and the print headlines tomorrow morning say about Trump’s shift.
Will “today and yesterday”—the subdued tone yesterday, the “I have always viewed it as very serious” Orwellian big-lie today—enter public consciousness as the time when Trump “got serious” and “became a leader”? Or as the time when he finally went too far with a blatant lie?
As I write this, in real time, we can’t be sure. I have my own guess, which I hope proves wrong.
This afternoon, on the heels of a widely panned formal Oval Office address, Donald Trump assembled a group of scientific and corporate leaders to talk about dealing with the coronavirus. You can watch the whole thing on the White House YouTube channel.
I suspect that we’ll see one line from this conference played frequently in the months ahead. You can watch it starting at around 1:22:00, when reporter Kristen Welker of NBC asks Trump whether he takes responsibility for the lag in making test kits available.
I don’t take responsibility at all.
Narrowly parsed, and in full context, Trump was referring only to the test kits — and was continuing his (fantasized) complaint that rules left over from 2016, under the Obama administration, are the real reason the U.S. has been so slow to respond to this pandemic.
But filmable moments in politics are not always taken in full context, and at their most narrowly parsed logical reading:
All of these—in full context, and most-sympathetically read—had a meaning you could understand and perhaps defend. None of that context or meaning survived, as those went from being phrases to weaponized symbols.
Will that happen to “I don’t take responsibility at all”? We will soon see.
Other stage business points:
A series of CEOs came to the microphone to describe what their companies were doing to speed testing or help out in other ways. Trump caught the first three or four of them unawares, by shaking their hands as they moved away from the lectern. All seemed startled, as you can see in the video.
Then the other CEOs began to catch on, and a following group of them scuttled away from the microphone before Trump could grab them for a handshake, or held their own hands clenched together, in a protective prayer-style grasp.
Finally, (at 1:06 in the video) you can see Bruce Greenstein, of the LHC group, surprise Trump with an elbow-bump rather than a hand shake. Trump himself seemed completely oblivious to the idea of social distancing. It was also notable that one speaker after another touched and moved around the same microphone, and put his her hands on the sides of the same lectern.
I mentioned earlier today the uneasy and evolving position of Anthony Fauci, who has been the “voice of science” through this episode as he has during previous medical emergencies. The uneasiness lies in the tension between his decades as a respected scientist, and his current role as a prominent member of Team Trump. Can he retain his long reputation as a straight shooter? While maintaining any influence with Trump?
Make what you will of his body language through the events today. (He is at far left in the picture below.)
Also today, I mentioned the inevitable-for-Trump, though inconceivable-in-other-administrations, ritual of Trump subordinates limitlessly praising the goodness and wisdom of their leader. It was striking to see all the CEOs skipping right past that formality.
But if you felt a phantom-limb twinge in the absence of these comments, all you had to do was wait for Mike Pence. You can hear him starting at around 1:07, with comments that began “This day should be an inspiration to every American” and built in earnestness from there.
There was much more from the question-and-answer session, but I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovery for anyone who has not seen it yet.
Two hundred and thirty-five days until the election.
As of today, March 13, 2020—three-plus years into the current administration, three months into public awareness of the coronavirus spread, seven-plus months until before the next election—Anthony Fauci is playing a role in which no previous Trump-era figure has survived.
One other person has been in the spot Fauci now occupies. That is, of course, James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense for Trump. Former is the key word here, and the question is whether the change in circumstances between Mattis’s time and Fauci’s—the public nature of this emergency, the greater proximity of upcoming elections, the apparent verdict from financial markets and both international and domestic leaders that Donald Trump is in deep over his head—will give Fauci the greater leverage he needs, not just to stay at work but also to steer policy away from the abyss.
Why is Anthony Fauci now, even more than James Mattis before him, in a different position from any other publicly visible associate of Trump’s?
Pre-Trump credibility, connections, and respect. Fauci has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. (How can he have held the post so long? Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79.)
Through his long tenure at NIH, which spanned the early days of the HIV/AIDS devastation and later experience with the SARS and H1N1 epidemics, Fauci has become a very familiar “public face of science,” explaining at congressional hearings and in TV and radio interviews how Americans should think about the latest threat. He has managed to stay apart from any era’s partisan-political death struggles. He has received a raft of scientific and civic honors, from the Lasker Award for health leadership, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by George W. Bush.
Thus, in contrast to virtually all the other figures with whom Trump has surrounded himself, Fauci is by any objective standard the best person for the job — and is universally seen as such. This distinguishes him from people Trump has favored in his own coterie, from longtime consigliere Michael Cohen to longtime ally Roger Stone to longtime personal physician Harold Bornstein; and from past and present members of his White House staff, like the departed Michael Flynn and the returned Hope Hicks and the sempiternal Jared Kushner; and fish-out-of-water Cabinet appointees, like (to pick one) the neurosurgeon Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Put another way: Very plainly, Trump needs Fauci more than Fauci needs Trump. This is not a position Donald Trump has ever felt comfortable in— witness the denouement with Mattis.
The ability not to abase himself before Trump. The first Cabinet meeting Donald Trump held, nearly three years ago, was unlike any other conducted in U.S. history, and very much like subsequent public appearance of Trump in company with his appointees.
In that meeting, on June 12, 2017, as TV cameras were rolling, Trump went around the table and one-by-one had his appointees gush about how kind, wise, and far-sighted he was—failing only to compliment him on his humility. (Tina Nguyen described the meeting at the time in Vanity Fair.) After praising himself, Trump called on others to praise him, starting with the reliable Mike Pence. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people,” Pence began. All the others followed his example—with the prominent exception of Mattis. He spent his “praise” time instead complimenting the men and women in uniform he led.
No public event like that Cabinet meeting had happened before in the United States, simply because no other president has been as needy for in-public adulation as Trump is. Of course most politicians and all presidents are needy; you could not run for the presidency if you had a normal temperament. (Background reading on this point, while you’re “socially isolating”: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.) Every political leader eats up the praise in private—“Wonderful job today, Mr. President—you were really connecting!”, not to mention Veep—but all the rest of them have been savvy enough to know how tacky this looks in public. The modern exception-illustrating-the-rule might have been Lyndon Johnson, with enough of the Sun King in his makeup to enjoy having people humble themselves before him. But holding a public adulation-fest? If George W. Bush had heard, say, Karl Rove start in that way, he would likely have said, “OK, Turd Blossom, what are you angling for?” Barack Obama—or John F. Kennedy, or Jimmy Carter— would have arched an eyebrow as if to ask, “Hey, did you think you were still playing in the minors?”
But what we saw in that Cabinet meeting, we have seen again and again from those around Trump. The most humiliating recent examples come from the people in charge of the coronavirus response: Pence again; Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services; Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control; and Seema Verma, in charge of Medicare and Medicaid. The beginnings and endings of their public statements, and the answers to many questions, are larded with praise for Trump and his “decisive and visionary action.” (For the latest example, see Verma under questioning from Martha MacCallum of Fox News. Verma repeatedly dodges MacCallum’s direct question about whether hospitals have enough ventilators and other supplies (as Fred Barbash laid out in the Washington Post. MacCallum makes one last try—and Verma seeks refuge in saying, “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action.” That claim made no logical sense to MacCallum or the listeners, but it reflected the inescapable logic of what is expected from members of the Court of Trump.)
There is one exception: Anthony Fauci. He has occasionally said that he agrees with aspects of the administration’s or the president’s policies, but he has avoided the ritual self-abnegation. Of course Fauci held his job long before Trump came to town, and is not part of the normal round of high-level appointments each new administration makes. (To the best of my knowledge, though, directors of NIH institutes, like Fauci, serve “at the pleasure of the president” and so could be removed. If I’m wrong on that, will update. Update: Several NIH veterans have written in to say that Fauci’s position is officially different from that of the NIH director, and is not directly a presidential-political appointment. Recent history teaches that a vindictive president can make things difficult even for career civil servants. But I am grateful for the clarification. )
But Fauci’s polite but consistent reluctance to grovel cannot have gone unnoticed by the audience-of-one for all the other appointees: Trump himself.
Daring to contradict Trump, in public. This is a step beyond anything Mattis attempted. Through the first two years of the administration, background-sourced stories and reports based on “those in a position to know the Secretary’s thinking” laid out the increasing distance between Mattis’s view of American interests and what Trump was saying and doing.
But there is no precedent, from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.
Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is...” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.
Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.
The president’s campaign is behind in polls and fundraising, but could still pull out a victory.
It was late in the evening at Hillary Clinton’s victory party in 2016, and by that point, the guests understood there would be neither a victory nor a party. As Donald Trump’s upset sank in among the hordes at the Javits Center in Manhattan, I asked one Clinton supporter how he was feeling. “Like I want to kill myself,” he said.
Later, at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, I stumbled upon a group of Clinton-campaign aides sitting together in tears. A tray of shots sat on the table before them. They shared a look of shock: How could this possibly have happened?
Trump trails Joe Biden by an average of eight points nationally, and is behind in every important battleground state. But his reelection still seems plausible, if only because 2016 seemed so implausible. “If I take my PTSD hat off, I can feel semi-comfortable about where things are,” Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida, told me. “But it’s impossible to take my PTSD hat off.”
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s tell-all book about the first lady is as sordid as it is fascinating.
Stephanie Winston Wolkoff is one of those patriotic Americans who went to work in the Trump White House, only to come soaring back over the gates, rejected by the host organism. Like many before her, she decided to write a book about her experiences, Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady, and she proffers it to us as an act of public service, although possibly also as a comprehensive case for the defense if this whole acid trip ends up at The Hague. She is another member of Plastic Camelot, the ever-changing group of personal friends, celebrities, and weirdos whom the Trumps bring close to them and then, in the manner of bored kings, dispatch to the tombs. Maybe they’re no more disturbing a collection of advisers and jesters than the men and women on whom other presidents have depended. Who’s to say that Omarosa is so much worse than Henry Kissinger? She certainly has a better record on human rights.
Democrats could win decisively next week. But that still wouldn’t neutralize minority Republican power.
If Joe Biden beats Donald Trump decisively next week, this election may be remembered as a hinge point in American history: the moment when a clear majority of voters acknowledged that there’s no turning back from America’s transformation into a nation of kaleidoscopic diversity, a future that doesn’t rely on a backward-facing promise to make America great again. But that doesn’t mean the voters who embody the nation’s future are guaranteed a lasting victory over those who feel threatened by it.
With Biden embracing America’s evolution and Trump appealing unrestrainedly to the white voters most fearful of it, the 2020 campaign marks a new peak in the most powerful trend shaping politics in this century. Over the past two decades, and especially since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, voters have re-sorted among the parties and thus reconfigured the central fault line between them. Today Republicans and Democrats are divided less by class or region than by attitudes toward the propulsive demographic, cultural, and economic shifts remaking 21st-century America. On one side, Republicans now mobilize what I’ve called a “coalition of restoration”; on the other, Democrats assemble a “coalition of transformation.”
It almost killed me. A story of criminal neglect and mass death in South Texas.
Image above: Jesus Torres digs graves at La Piedad Cemetery in McAllen, Texas.
At half past one on the morning of July 1, my 60th birthday, I awoke shivering. Since summertime chills are rare in South Texas, I immediately grew concerned. As the director of public affairs for Hidalgo County, just one county removed from the bottom of the state, I had been spending my days urging people to be on the lookout for symptoms that might indicate a COVID-19 infection. Chief among them were chills and a fever. Looking at my sleeping wife, a committed germaphobe, I crawled out of bed to hunt down a thermometer.
Ninety-nine degrees; a low-grade fever. Crawling back into bed, I knew my life was about to change: Part of the public-health-education message I’d been hammering was Self-isolate if you begin showing symptoms. Over the next hour, my temperature continued to rise. I woke my wife and told her to leave the room. That was the last time we would share a bed for two months.
Courage exercised only when the coast is clear is not courage; it is opportunism.
Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the author John le Carré’s most famous creation, the fictional British spy George Smiley, reflected on a career spent fighting a now-vanquished enemy.
“There are some people,” Smiley said at a dinner among young recruits to the Secret Service, “who, when their past is threatened, get frightened of losing everything they thought they had, and perhaps everything they thought they were as well. Now I don’t feel that one bit. The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in.”
With a bit more pensiveness, Smiley adds: “Or perhaps … our troubles are just beginning.”
I think of this passage often, not only because I spent the first part of my career fighting (in my own small and mostly insignificant way) the Cold War, but also because I have spent the most recent part of my career fighting the possible rise of authoritarianism in my own country. I was a founding member of the band of Republican defectors known as the Never Trumpers, and one way or another, “the times I have lived in”—the movement to protect American democracy from Donald Trump and to stop his reelection—will come to an end in November.
America’s left and right are radicalizing each other, and the precedents from overseas are deeply unsettling.
As one of the ugliest and most divisive American presidential campaigns in our history coasts to its finish, President Donald Trump’s defenders are making their closing arguments. Some of them assert that they like Trump’s policies; his ethical violations or his abuses of his office for personal gain don’t bother them. These views come from deep conviction, and at this point, they can’t be changed.
But another argument that appears over and over again in these closing statements demands a response. It is often made by educated conservatives, people who know that the Trump administration and its incompetence have allowed the coronavirus to devastate America. They also know that Trump has left America weaker and less influential around the world. They even dislike Trump’s vulgarity and his cruelty; they just wish he would stop tweeting. Nevertheless, they will vote for him because the alternative—the left, the Democrats, the socialists, the “woke warriors,” whatever epithet you want to use—is so much worse.
“I want to feel hopeful about Joe Biden’s chances this year, but I just can’t,” my neighbor confessed to me, as we stood in line outside a coffee shop. What had begun as pleasant conversation—dogs, the temperature, clouds—had been pulled, through the vortex known as Late October in an Election Year, into an airing of political anxieties. “I’m still so afraid that 2016 is going to happen again and Trump is going to win,” she said.
Based on the sample size of my life, every Democrat feels this way. Yes, they’ll preface, the polls look all right for Biden. But four years ago, they looked good for Hillary Clinton too. And so, they fear, the horror film of 2016 is about to get its sequel.
There is a small chance that their fears will come true. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been stockpiling all of the quantitative reasons why the 2020 election is really, truly different from 2016, from new polling methodologies to fewer undecided voters. As always, do not allow any level of optimism (or pessimism) to guide your decision to vote. Just vote.
When The Office originally aired, its resident fool made for easy comedy. Fifteen years later, it’s hard to watch Dwight without seeing tragedy.
These are boom times for the lolsob. Watching the news, I sometimes find myself staring at the screen, eyes wide, brain broken, not sure whether to laugh or cry. The farce and tragedy tangle so tightly that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. How do you make sense, for example, of a leader who, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, muses about the curative powers of bleach? How do you process a president’s attempt to edit a hurricane with a Sharpie? The words, after a while, stop working. The categories collapse. Many true things have been written about what living under this regime feels like; one of the truest I’ve encountered is a 2017 prediction from the writer Hayes Brown: “This is going to be the dumbest dystopia.”
The longer we can prevent infections, the better prepared we will be to treat them.
During the first COVID-19 surge of the spring, the mantra was “Flatten to curve”—to buy time, using every tool available.
Seven months later, it’s possible to measure what that time has bought: The death rate for COVID-19 has fallen dramatically. Hospitals in most places are not overburdened, and treatments are improving in many small but cumulative ways. In one study of patients hospitalized in a New York City health system, the adjusted death rate fell from 25.6 percent in March, at the pandemic’s onset, to 7.6 percent in August.
This change cannot be explained by COVID-19 patients getting younger and healthier. The study’s authors adjusted the mortality rates for age and other risk factors. “People should take this as validation of all the hard work and sacrifices they have been making,” says Leora Horwitz, an internist and the study’s lead author. “It has made a difference.” Similar patterns hold throughout New York City and in the U.K., and they underscore the reason for flattening the curve. The longer we can prevent infections, the better prepared we will be to treat the people that might eventually get it.
The GOP is in danger of losing an entire system of political control.
I doubted that Mitch McConnell could do it, but he did. With only a week remaining before Election Day, McConnell crammed through the confirmation of a sixth conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. The people who tally such things reckon that Amy Coney Barrett is the first justice since 1869 to receive not a single vote from the minority party in the Senate.
It was a move of raw power. But it was also motivated by raw desperation.
Polls suggest Republicans are facing defeat in the 2020 races, and probably by big margins. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are neck and neck in Georgia and Texas, nobody’s previous idea of swing states. Republican senators are at risk not only in Maine and Colorado, but also in Iowa and even Kansas.