To truly get a sense of just how ludicrous the White House coronavirus press briefings are becoming, it is useful to take a glance at other democratic nations and see how they are addressing the nation and informing the population of the government response to the pandemic.
In the United Kingdom, a senior government official takes questions alongside two medical advisers, often Chris Witty and Sir Patrick Vallance, who can clarify specific queries from the press and answer questions directly. In France, the daily update is delivered by Dr Jerome Salomon, the government’s chief medical adviser. Across the border, German citizens get their daily briefings from Lothar Wieler, an expert from the Robert Koch Institute, which is the federal agency tasked with disease control. Notice a pattern here?
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United States, President Trump has been taking centre stage, dismissing reporters’ legitimate questions on his handling of the outbreak with cries of ‘fake news’. Surrounded by his political allies at the microphone, who are obviously not observing the near-universal two-metre social distancing guidelines, Trump appears to spend more time ridiculing and lambasting the news organisations in attendance than he does explaining in detail the government response.
The President needs to get his priorities in order. At a time of national emergency, his administration should be putting aside their personal grievances with the media and instead reassuring Americans that the government has it under control by explaining what measures the federal government are implementing to look after its citizens. At a recent briefing, Trump suggested that he had inherited flawed coronavirus tests from the Obama administration. This claim has been dismissed by Tara Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University who said that the claim ‘doesn’t make sense’ due to the simple fact ‘this a new virus’. Can you really blame the media for being sceptical and scrutinising the government when they see misleading claims being made by the administration? Is that not their job as a credible news organisation?
At the latest briefing on Monday, after proclaiming that the ‘news doesn’t mean anything to me because they don’t tell the truth’, Trump played a video montage and the lights were dimmed. In something that resembled more of a 2020 PAC commercial than an official government video, it stitched together Fox News clips and politician interviews in order to reinforce the notion that he is, in fact, doing a stellar job. Trump is well aware that this is an election year, and voters across the country are assessing his leadership during this time of crisis. He is clever in using his daily press conference as a mini party political broadcast to get his message across to as wide an audience as he can. He knows people will be tuning in and listening as they are concerned about the outbreak.
That does not, however, make all his claims about his handling of the virus correct. Many have criticised Trump and said that his handling has not been good enough and much further action should have been taken, at a much earlier date. Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard, supported this view when he recently said that ‘The Trump administration’s self-centred, haphazard, and tone-deaf response will end up costing Americans trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths’. A damning indictment. A recent investigation published by the New York Times also found that ‘the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic but that internal divisions, lack of planning and his faith in his own instincts led to a halting response’. With Trump doing his daily misleading ramble from the briefing room, can you blame the Washington radio station KUOW when they chose to not air Trumps’s briefings ‘due to a pattern of false or misleading information’?
Trump claims that he is handling the crisis well. But this is coming from the same man that stated that the virus will suddenly be gone one day: ‘one day it’s like a miracle – it will disappear’. He also knew that the pandemic response team tasked with dealing with viruses and diseases was going to be reduced in size in 2018, despite recently claiming he ‘didn’t know anything about it’. At intelligence briefings, he doesn’t like to read the reports given to him by the CIA Director and National Intelligence Director, instead preferring ‘killer graphics’ in the form of pictures, videos and charts. One hopes he isn’t taking this type of approach when a scientific adviser puts a coronavirus report on his desk.
Trump said another rather telling remark at Monday’s briefing. He said that ‘when somebody is President of the United States, the authority is total’. Believing you deserve complete power without accepting criticism is dangerous, especially when over 23,000 Americans have already died after catching the virus, the largest number of any country in the world.
It is right that leaders around the world are being scrutinised for the policies they are implementing to tackle this horrific pandemic. At the end of the day, people’s lives depend on it.
Photo: Donald Trump during his 2016 Presidential Campaign | Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr under licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)