The White House started Monday with a coronavirus task force briefing on the schedule. It was canceled a few hours later, and a bit after that, the White House announced the president would hold a news conference in the Rose Garden.
What transpired shortly after 5:30 was a White House event that had all the trappings of the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force press conferences, which have come under increasing criticism from Republicans who worry they are doing more political harm than good for the president.
Those criticisms stepped up after Trump was widely ridiculed for a briefing Thursday where he discussed the possibility of using ultraviolet light of disinfectant injections against the COVID-19 disease, which has now killed more than 55,000 people in the United States.
The next day, Trump held a briefing that lasted just more than 20 minutes, and there were no briefings over the weekend. Reports circulated that the White House was changing course, while a report in The New York Times said Republicans were increasingly worried Trump would lose election in November and take the GOP’s Senate majority with him.
Monday evening’s event, though rebranded, felt like the briefings of old if tighter — it lasted about an hour. It all suggests Trump sees some benefit from briefings after all, and will raise questions about what’s to come.
Trump began the conference by touting his administration’s accomplishments before introducing a parade of executives from health care companies and laboratories to tout their progress on expanding testing capabilities. The attendees were similar to those who spoke at a March 13 Rose Garden briefing and promised quick implementation of drive-thru sites.
Trump largely focused his own remarks on efforts to reopen the country and get Americans back to work during the appearance, which spanned about half the time of his longest briefings.
Three regular faces also got time on Monday.
Trump invited Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the federal response to COVID-19, as well as testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir to lay out a new strategy on testing meant to guide states as they move toward relaxing coronavirus restrictions and reopening their economies.
And Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceGOP senator: ‘We’re way behind’ on coronavirus testing Trump says he disagrees with Fauci on testing capabilities On The Trail: Trump’s demands for loyalty extend to scientists MORE spoke a few words, some of which were about the fine job the president was doing.
The president managed to avoid the types of controversial and self-sabotaging statements that led to his allies urging him to pare back his briefing appearances.
Many of the questions Trump fielded were either unrelated or loosely related to the pandemic, underscoring the risks of the president getting off track during the unscripted portion of the briefings.
He chided one reporter for asking an “unfair question” about Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, complained about the treatment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn amid his pending sentencing, and denied a suggestion from Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSNL’s Cecily Strong roasts Trump as Gretchen Whitmer: ‘That woman’ is ‘what Trump calls his wife’ President Trump faces a major hurdle with swing state voters Governors discuss, defend plans to reopen state economies amid coronavirus pandemic MORE that he was aiming to move the date of the election without taking aim at his presumptive Democratic presidential foe.
Trump himself had signaled that he might curtail his briefing appearances.
“What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately,” Trump tweeted Saturday, saying the briefings were “Not worth the time & effort!”
Instead, Trump used the Rose Garden even to express optimism about the ability for governors to reopen their states and steer the economic recovery process as the pandemic eases, even as state leaders clamor for more federal resources on testing.
“All parts of the country are either in good shape or getting better,” Trump said as the event began. “Ensuring the health of our economy is vital to ensuring the health of our nation.”
There’s still a possibility Trump could curtail his appearance at briefings in the coming week, given the signals sent by the White House.
Trump’s decision to stage a news conference after all underscores the degree to which advisers may struggle to keep him on message, even as Republican allies worry the briefings are damaging politically.
The president’s approval ratings have dipped in recent weeks as he continued to give lengthy briefings every day that featured fights with reporters, attacks on his political opponents and scarce signs of empathy for the tens of thousands of Americans who have died from the coronavirus.
Calls for him to step aside intensified after last Thursday’s briefing in which Trump suggested officials consider exposing the body to light or injecting disinfectant as a coronavirus treatment.
Trump was asked to address those remarks during the briefing Monday when a reporter asked about Maryland and other states reporting an increase in calls to poison centers related to the use of disinfectant to treat the virus. Trump answered that he “can’t imagine” why that would happen, before quickly moving on to another question.