“Your forehead, please,” said the woman in a mask.
She was a medical technician sitting in a tent outside the northwest gate of the White House in the otherwise deserted section of Pennsylvania Avenue that is usually crammed with tourists in April.
Donald Trump’s daily 5 p.m. show — officially described on the White House schedule as a press briefing by Members of the Coronavirus Task Force — was scheduled to start. It is at this surreal moment in American politics the only news event that really matters. The entire country is sitting at home looking for expert guidance. On some days, we get it. Early on when Dr. Anthony Fauci first explained the idea behind social distancing or when Dr. Deborah Birx introduced us all to the concept of bending the curve, the briefings were crucial— perhaps the closest thing in modern times to one of FDR’s fireside chats during the Depression and World War II, a news briefing from government officials who your life actually depended on.
But they quickly descended into Trumpian theater. Useful information from the doctors became mixed in with long rants from Trump on peripheral issues. The relationship between Trump and the task force members themselves, especially Fauci, who became a media hero, gradually started to dominate the sessions, as if Trump couldn’t help but turn the crisis into a reality show about himself and his staff and his peculiar obsessions of the moment.
This week, especially Monday’s event, the briefings reached the zenith of showcasing unusual behavior, peripheral issues and petty intrigue. On Monday, Trump played a propaganda video, angrily attacked reporters sitting a few feet away, declared himself to have “total authority,” and pressed officials — some more reluctantly (Fauci) than others (Mike Pence) — to stand before the cameras and deliver obsequious praise while he hovered nearby.
The briefings have sent Trump’s political opponents, particularly Joe Biden, who continues to be quarantined at home in Delaware, scrambling for ways to gain attention. And they have created a crisis in the news media, as networks and online publications struggle with how to cover them and whether it’s appropriate to play the briefings, which are larded with erroneous information and campaign-like speechifying, live.
Watching these events on television doesn’t capture how surreal they really are, so on Monday and Thursday, I ventured to the White House to see them up close.
It sometimes takes 20-30 minutes to drive the two miles from where I live in Washington to the White House in the late afternoon, but on Monday it took about five. It was the first time I’d been outside my home for a reporting assignment since covering Super Tuesday in California in early March, and it was jarring to stand so close to another human being who wasn’t a member of my quarantine family or the clerk at the local deli, liquor store, and 7-Eleven, three of the only places I’ve been for the past few weeks.
I leaned forward as if I were receiving Communion and she reached out and swiped the soft pad of an electronic thermometer across my forehead. It made a satisfying beep.
“What’s my temperature?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, we’re not allowed to say.”
There was no line of reporters to enter the White House grounds, as there often is on a day when Trump holds a news conference. Pebble Beach, the row of TV standup locations along the driveway to the West Wing, was eerily quiet. A White House staffer wielding another thermometer greeted me and other reporters as we arrived outside the door to the briefing room.
“How have you been feeling?” she asked. It took me a moment to realize she was asking whether I had any symptoms and not offering a quick therapy session. I passed the second test and another staffer gave me a sticker with the date on it to wear as verification.
The briefing room and the warren of office spaces behind and below it are famously cramped, and reporters who show up there every day to cover this story are clearly at a higher risk for exposure than their colleagues who work safely from home. Recently a photojournalist for one of the networks had shown potential Covid-19 symptoms, so one day last week every reporter who came to the White House received a Coronavirus test. Since tests are still hard to come by in the Washington area, several White House reporters not on the beat that day told me they were disappointed they weren’t among the test-takers.
Before these daily events, the White House briefing room was essentially shuttered — now there’s daily access to the president and his top aides that’s enormously revealing.
If you’ve been cooped up at home for weeks, going into a semi-normal working environment is disorienting. Most reporters are still not wearing masks, and it was surprising how casually — and closely — people mingled. As it almost always is, the briefing was delayed and I retreated outside to wait. When an old friend joined me, I awkwardly told him he was standing too close.
There’s an important journalistic debate raging about whether these briefings should be shown live by cable networks and online platforms and whether reporters should attend them at all. As the sessions have become more propagandistic and an outlet for misinformation, the argument, at least for TV networks, for abstaining from live coverage has become stronger. But it would be absurd to boycott the briefings. Before these daily events, the White House briefing room was essentially shuttered. Now there’s daily access to the president and his top aides that’s enormously revealing.
That’s not to say that Trump doesn’t exploit his ability to command the nation’s attention. Of course he does, as Monday’s event made clear.
There are only 14 reporters allowed in the briefing room. They sit in a scattered pattern among the seven rows — not 6 feet apart as recommended, but also not on top of each other as they normally would be seated.
On most days, members of the task force, like Fauci and Birx, are forced to wait silently before the cameras until Trump and Pence appear. When Trump emerged from behind a sliding blue door, he stood in front of the lectern, scanned the room, which was silent, and said, “Thank you very much, everyone.” It was unclear whom he was thanking or what he was thanking them for, unless he wanted viewers at home to believe he had been greeted with applause.
Figuring out what to ask Trump is complicated. There are a few general categories. There are the news-of-the-day questions that tend to dominate briefings and daily White House coverage.
There are broader, more philosophical questions that might elicit more interesting responses but also risk being a waste of time. “My highly unprofessional instinct in those situations is to ask a question from left field that will get him talking, with the purpose of getting access to another part of his ‘mind,’” one non-reporter advised me. “Not a policy question, but something like: Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be president during this horror? Do you share the fear that many Americans feel about their vulnerability? What haunts you the most? Do you think there are emergencies in the history of our country when politics has to take a back seat, and is this one of them?”
A wise colleague recommended that the best way to get called on is to keep your focus on the president when other members of the task force are speaking.
Then there are questions that present Trump with something he said previously that contradicts something he is currently saying. But Trump does this so often and he is so casual about simply dismissing his previous remarks, that as journalistically important as it is to point out these reversals, they rarely elicit a noteworthy response from him.
Finally, there are the questions that respond in the moment to what the president is talking about. These are often the most important ones. Reporters can’t really prepare for them but, instead, need to pay close attention and be nimble enough to realize that whatever preplanned questions they might have had need to be abandoned.
Monday’s briefing was dominated by this last category. The previous day, Trump had retweeted someone who used a #firefauci hashtag and so he ushered the doctor to the podium to express his regret about making some comments that suggested the president was at fault for not taking some mitigation steps earlier. Trump, who looks about a foot taller than Fauci, stood close by and scowled as the doctor recanted. In previous White Houses, this kind of palace intrigue only played out in leaked and reconstructed accounts to the press. In the Trump White House, the president brings the inter-personnel drama to Twitter and to his briefings for all to witness.
Trump, who had clearly been stewing all weekend about investigative reports that said he botched the early response to the epidemic, then started the briefing by playing a crude video that mocked reporters and political opponents for not taking the coronavirus seriously enough. He then attacked two reporters and launched into a riff about how he had “total authority” to command governors to act according to his wishes, a position he reversed at Thursday’s briefing.
Trump is a creature of habit and he tends to return to reporters with whom he’s familiar again and again. He has a few obvious moves as he calls on people. If he wants a fiery exchange that will create drama, he’ll pick on someone from CNN or CBS. If he wants to turn the temperature down or if he’s grown weary of difficult questions, he’ll return to one of the wire reporters who prefer less confrontational process questions.
If you’re new to the room, it can take a while to get his attention. A wise colleague recommended that the best way to get called on is to keep your focus on the president when other members of the task force are speaking. Because Trump craves attention, he can find it uncomfortable when the entire room is watching one of his aides instead of him. I kept putting my hand up but was struggling to get called on. Finally, there was a break when one of the doctors spoke. I trained my eyes on Trump instead of the person at the lectern. He scanned the room and noticed, just as I had been advised he would. I made a motion and mouthed something to indicate he should call on me next. He nodded and we seemed to have a deal. Sure enough, he held to it.
At Wednesday’s briefing, I watched an Australian journalist do an even more exaggerated version of the same tactic. He gave Trump a big thumb’s up. It easily secured him the next question.