To reverse slide, some Trump aides hope for a return to coronavirus briefings
What’s a President to do? For some aides, a solution lies in a return to the daily coronavirus briefings that punctuated the earliest days of the pandemic, a once-nightly ritual that ended when President Donald Trump made an offhand suggestion that ingesting disinfectant might help treat the disease.
Not everyone is on board, Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway acknowledged on Friday. But she is.
“The President’s numbers were much higher when he was out there briefing everybody on a day-by-day basis about the coronavirus, just giving people the information,” Conway said. “I think the President should be doing that.”
As polls show Americans souring on Trump’s handling of the public health crisis, his aides have begun to weigh plans to put him back in front of the administration’s response, including the potential of resuming the type of near-daily update that marked the first stage of the outbreak, people familiar with the plans say.
Recognizing that Trump’s reelection prospects are now tied intractably to the coronavirus pandemic, his aides are hopeful the coming weeks will mark a new focus on his part on addressing the crisis and appearing in charge.
A senior Trump campaign adviser said not only would that help Trump politically, it would have the added benefit of saving lives.
“It’s about doing the right thing,” the adviser said.
The adviser said some aides would like to see the President hold virtual rallies or be seen out on the campaign trail wearing a mask, to send the message that he understands what needs to be done to curb the virus.
That of course hinges on one big factor — whether Trump would do those things.
If the proposed change in strategy will come to pass remains an open question, even among those doing the planning. Few believe Trump is interested in resuming the day-to-day oversight of the pandemic, which he has largely left to Vice President Mike Pence since April. He hasn’t attended a meeting of his coronavirus task force since around that time.
The potential pitfalls seem numerous, including the type of disastrous episode that ended his briefings the first go-around. Many are skeptical that Trump can remain on-message long enough to convince Americans that he is taking the pandemic seriously.
And Trump himself has been wary of returning to the podium as the face of the administration response, concerned it will send the signal the virus isn’t under control and that his efforts so far have been fruitless.
But with the virus spreading out-of-control in many parts of the country and his standing among voters worsening, Trump’s advisers feel they have little choice but to try something new.
So a change in strategy appears in the offing, at least in theory.
“The President’s routinely focused on the coronavirus,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Thursday. “I think you’ll be hearing more about what we’re doing in the coming week. He’s hard at work.”
The hard work on coronavirus was not evident this week. The last time Trump held a public event solely focused on coronavirus was July 7. In that event — a roundtable on reopening schools — Trump made little mention of the surge in cases that is preventing many districts from moving forward with in-classroom learning in the fall.
Since then his attention has been elsewhere. He held multiple events focused on law enforcement this week, including a roundtable on Monday featuring guest speakers who recounted their positive experiences with police (one woman described how her purse had been stolen).
When the President traveled to Georgia on Wednesday, he was not there to address the state’s surging case count. Instead, he delivered remarks on rolling back regulations and again attacked Biden.
He touched on similar themes Thursday, sandwiched between two pickup trucks on the South Lawn.
At some point on Wednesday, Trump spoke by phone for the first time in months with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s well-respected infectious disease chief, who Trump has publicly bashed.
At another point on Wednesday, aides spread out a collection of products from the manufacturer Goya — including two types of beans — so Trump could pose for a thumbs-up photo endorsing the brand.
“He’s doing a lot of things at once,” McEnany said the following day. “That’s the great thing about the Trump administration.”
Yet to many of the President’s advisers and political allies, “many things” has equaled a lack of focus on the one issue gripping Americans and causing Trump’s poll numbers to sink.
While some aides hoped Trump’s first public foray in a mask last weekend — which came after pleading from his advisers — would preface a new push on mask-wearing, the President has not mentioned it since, and eschewed a face covering during his visit to Atlanta (the city’s mayor said he violated the rules).
How much a return to daily briefings might help isn’t clear. Trump was initially drawn to them when other events outside the White House — including campaign rallies — were canceled out of health concerns. He came to appreciate the stately setting of the White House Briefing Room and once declared himself a “wartime President” from the podium.
But eventually the briefings became settings for unruly brawls with reporters, airing of grievances against Democratic governors and incoherent tangents, including the one about disinfectant. They were phased out when some of his political advisers feared his behavior in them was damaging his standing among voters, particularly senior citizens and women.
Conway said that she believes some people in the White House encouraged Trump to stop the daily briefings, which were commonplace in the early days of the pandemic. She said that while the briefings don’t need to be two hours long, “they shouldn’t be zero minutes either.”
Whether a return to the podium might benefit Trump largely depends on what he does there.
Even as Trump rejiggered his campaign staff this week by replacing campaign manager Brad Parscale with a more seasoned operative, Bill Stepien, there are few around him who believe those moves alone will resuscitate his badly damaged political prospects.
People familiar with the matter said Stepien was likely to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the campaign and deliver an assessment of how to turn things around, including the potential for more staff changes.
But many Republicans and allies of the President say that unless Trump himself changes his self-destructive patterns and appears more concerned about controlling the pandemic, his poll numbers are unlikely to improve.