President Trump’s Oval Office speech last week was a massive dud and the stock market took a huge dive last Thursday. So Trump decided to take the bull by the horns and held a press conference in the Rose Garden with a group of CEOs just before closing time the next day. The market made a sharp upward turn as he spoke and the president was extremely pleased with himself. Numerous reports about the deliberations within the dysfunctional White House over the past week, however, have made it clear that was the only thing that pleased him.
According to the New York Times, it’s been an extremely chaotic time with infighting among the various task force members, Jared Kushner stepping all over everyone’s toes and incompetent leadership from the top. In other words, it’s been business as usual in the Trump administration. Unfortunately, this time this bumbling White House is confronting its first real crisis and one of the most serious global challenges in decades.
On Sunday, Trump appeared in the White House briefing room to announce that the Federal Reserve had cut interest rates virtually to zero, but on Monday the market dropped precipitously again. Although Trump obviously thought that he could turn it around with another end-of-day press conference, it didn’t work. The market closed down nearly 3,000 points, and every bit of news about the coronavirus was so bad that even Trump dialed down his bragging a notch and avoided the incessant happy talk that had pervaded all his other appearances.
One thing the president had noticed, apparently, was that Vice President Mike Pence was getting good reviews in the media for his daily briefings, with newspapers and cable news pronouncing that his serious tone was welcome and necessary in the crisis. It is, therefore, no surprise that Trump led the briefing again on Tuesday, shoving Pence to the background. Why let the veep hog all that good press?
As Dan Froomkin noted this week in Salon’s Press Watch column, many members of the media remarked on the change in Trump’s “tone” on Monday, although by the end of the briefing the president had reverted to form:
But Trump being Trump, he couldn’t bring himself to apologize for the many lost weeks of insufficient federal response, nor admit even the tiniest flaw: He rated his performance a 10 out of 10. And soon enough, he was back to sending out vile tweets about the “Chinese Virus” and attacking “failing” governors who had the audacity to critique the federal response.
Froomkin pointed out that the press, for the most part, has looked for leadership among other players in this crisis, particularly health experts, governors and mayors who have stepped into the breach both in terms of actual response and delivering the clear public information required in an emergency such as this. After Tuesday’s briefing, a reporter asked the president why he’d changed his tone on Monday. Trump said that he hadn’t changed it at all, adding, “I have seen that people actually liked it.”
The truth is that he’s not the only one who has changed his tone. Fox News and other right-wing media have made an abrupt pivot as well, and as has been the case throughout the Trump presidency, it’s a chicken-and-egg question as to who went first.
This compilation by the Washington Post illustrates the change:
— The Fix (@thefix) March 17, 2020
Some right-wing commentators are now saying that Trump has made “a sharp pivot to a “wartime” footing,” taking command of the crisis. Former Trump communications director Jason Miller said, “This is a war unlike anything we’ve faced in American history and it’s going to take an unconventional president who isn’t trapped by preconceived notions of doing things the way they’ve always been done to lead us through this.”
His leadership has certainly been “unconventional” up until now:
“Trump didn't cause the pandemic. What he did was squander America's only advantage—a lag time during which to prepare for the crisis—thus encouraging the spread of the disease when it might have been contained. He has, in real and material ways, made this crisis worse.” pic.twitter.com/dpfEqH02uI
— Sarah Longwell (@SarahLongwell25) March 17, 2020
Trump likes the war metaphor.
The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2020
I felt a little sense of déjà vu as I read those pieces and watched the media response to Trump’s appearance on Tuesday. It recalled an earlier episode in which a president looked like a deer in the headlights during a crisis and was then elevated to heroic status by the press when he appeared at Ground Zero with a bullhorn and spoke to the assembled rescue workers:
I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!
The ecstatic reaction from the media fully activated the impulse to rally around the president, and that was the end of virtually all skepticism about the American response to the 9/11 attacks for the next year. The media made George W. Bush into a “wartime” leader that day, and granted him all the power that came with it.
We are once again facing a national crisis. This time it’s not just hitting a couple of cities, as devastating as that was. This is affecting everyone in the country. The economic fallout stands to be even worse than the 2008 financial crisis. And once again, you can sense that the media is longing to anoint a leader to perform some ostensibly heroic ritual to make us all feel better.
That’s why my antennae went up when I heard all the TV commentators making so much of Trump’s new “tone” and how he seemed to be a different, more serious president. This comment by Dana Bash at CNN was so effusive that the Trump team sent it out to their followers:
Watch CNN's Dana Bash praise President @RealDonaldTrump's leadership on the coronavirus:
"He is being the kind of leader…that people need and want and yearn for in times of crisis and uncertainty." pic.twitter.com/gvKSqWN6ge
— Trump War Room – Text SHAMROCK to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) March 17, 2020
The AP headlined an article, “Trump changes his tone, gets real on the coronavirus threat.” CNN published one called “What drove Trump’s newfound somber tone on coronavirus.” In fairness, both articles feature plenty of skepticism and don’t soft-soap Trump’s failures so far. But as this crisis deepens there is a danger that mainstream media commentators and pundits will fall into the same trap they fell into after 9/11.
Trump won’t be able to hold his big rallies for the foreseeable future. They were key to his success in 2016, but it wasn’t the rallies themselves as much as all the free TV exposure they gave him. I think he has figured out that he will be able to hold these televised press conferences, surrounded by experts, and appear to be in command and look presidential instead.
Recall that he reportedly told a group of GOP donors at Mar-a-Lago just a week or so ago:
They’re trying to scare everybody, from meetings, cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country. And that’s ok, as long as we can win the election. But I really believe that if they see that the Trump administration is handling this virus in a professional, competent way, I don’t believe that’s going to hurt us.
Trump’s feral survival instincts have kicked in, and they’ve saved him many times before. If he can manage to control himself even a little bit, his supposed nemesis, the media, may give him the boost he needs to win again.