Trump’s coronavirus briefing casting keeps people guessing
It included officials such as Lieutenant-General Todd Semonite, chief of the Army Engineers Corps; Brett Giroir, the administration test czar; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees efforts to rescue a severely weakened economy.
Aides said there was little to read about the traveling staff accompanying Trump to his briefings, saying that the meeting of the day had more to do with the particular message sent, not with the current position of each official. . At other times, Trump has randomly chosen who will join him in the briefing, with some assistants only discovering him moments before the start.
However, for a president who now considers daily briefings to be essential to his political future and insists on holding them even on weekends, the composition of the distribution has been a regular concern.
Trump has told his staff that he – not his subordinates – is generating the greatest number, even more than the doctors or other professionals in the task force he had assembled to fight the public health crisis.
And although he prides himself privately on making stars for his team, Trump has also bristled with suggestions to leave medical advice and public health recommendations to doctors – and in particular Fauci, whose frank management of the Coronavirus crisis has won him praise from many but disdainful of some Trump allies.
Administration officials, Fauci and even Trump himself quickly downplayed his previous absences, suggesting that he is a man busy fighting a health crisis once in a generation. Even on days when he doesn’t show up at early evening press conferences, Fauci still attends meetings of the Coronavirus task force in the White House Situation Room, which are chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.
On Monday, he left the White House just after 4 p.m. AND, approximately 90 minutes before the start of the daily briefing. On Tuesday, he returned to the National Institutes of Health in the late afternoon as Trump and his colleagues prepared for the press conference, the start of which was devoted to the economic fallout from the virus with Mnuchin.
A Rorschach test
However, Fauci’s non-presence at briefings has become a sort of Rorschach test for observers of the administration’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. Because of his sincere willingness to publicly contradict the president on issues such as testing and treatment, Fauci has become a hero for those who believe that Trump is mismanaging the crisis. When he is away, they shout: “Where’s Fauci?”
But these same traits – as well as his public prudence about the country’s too rapid reopening – earned him the contempt of some of the president’s conservative allies, who threw him like a boater reluctant to adopt a coherent message.
Then Trump ignored the episode, saying he didn’t report any frustration with Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And Fauci called his comments hypothetical and took offense when a reporter asked if Trump had forced him to reverse his previous statements.
“Everything I do is voluntary, please,” he said. “Don’t even imply that.”
White House officials continued to insist that Trump trusted Fauci and Trump minimized all tensions. And Fauci suggested that daily appearances – which involve long periods of silence as Trump argues with reporters – are not a fully productive use of his time.
Trump has tacitly acknowledged that his briefings have become substitutes for the political rallies he has given up because of the epidemic. Privately, Trump is eager to return from rallies or at least some type of event in the country to break the monotony of daily briefings. Pence has visited manufacturing plants, which Trump has told his coworkers he would also like to do soon.
He said last week that walking in the briefing room – where journalists are dispersed and where only a few technicians are allowed to use cameras – is not the same thing.
“I look at this piece and I see it all – it loses a lot of flavor,” he said. “It loses a lot of flavor to me.”
Trump recently appeared more aware of the time his officials spend in the White House information room. He asked cabinet secretaries such as Mnuchin, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make remarks and answer questions for a while before returning to their agencies to continue working.
On Monday, after a presentation by Semonite, Trump offered a choice to the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“So, general, you have a choice: you can stay and watch these wonderful people ask very nice questions or you can go back to building beds,” said Trump.
“Sir, I have a lot of work to do,” replied Semonite. “I’ll go, if you don’t mind.”
A few seconds later, Semonite was gone.
Unlike Fauci, Birx attended almost all of the coronavirus briefings – except for one weekend in March when she said she had a “low grade” fever and stayed at home.
She also avoided publicly breaking up with the president on issues such as testing and treatment. Trump considers Birx a mandatory presence during briefings, sources said, given his colorful and detailed graphics that reveal data on the epidemic in the United States. She has attracted some criticism in recent days for refusing to guess the Republican governors who open their states long before the federal recommendations.
“Each governor can decide for himself whether he has reached specific directives in specific areas,” she said.
In the days leading up to key decisions – such as extending federal deadlines for social distancing or deploying guidance on reopening states – Fauci participated in long sessions with the president debating issues.
Asked about the NIH guidelines on hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin at the White House Coronavirus task force meeting on Tuesday, Trump said, “We’re going to take a look. I’m always ready to take a look an eye.”
Fauci, however, was not present. At a White House briefing earlier this month, Trump refused to let the doctor answer a question about hydroxychloroquine.
Frank public disagreements between Trump and a senior official are virtually unprecedented in his administration. Earlier in the crisis, Trump became furious when an official at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that the situation would worsen badly in the United States, believing that his assessment was too fatalistic.
Brutal openness also didn’t always attract Fauci to Trump; the president complained in private when he appeared to be contradicted by the best infectious disease specialist in the country.
Last week, after Fauci indicated that testing and monitoring capabilities were still lagging behind ideal levels, Trump offered a brief response.
“I don’t know what he said,” he replied when asked about the remark. “Nobody knows.”