Trump coronavirus briefings become mini election rallies

AFP Washington, United States Mar 26, 2020, 11.21 PM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

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In a nation paralyzed by fear of the rampaging virus, the White House briefing room podium is the go-to place for primetime television viewers to catch their government's latest response.

Forced by the coronavirus pandemic to suspend reelection rallies, President Donald Trump has converted daily White House briefings on the crisis into mini campaign speeches, dominating the airwaves while his main rival sits quarantined in his basement.

In a nation paralyzed by fear of the rampaging virus, the White House briefing room podium is the go-to place for primetime television viewers to catch their government's latest response.

At least that's the idea.

But center stage is reserved for Trump and with a little over seven months to election day, the virus is not the only battle on the Republican's mind.

Experts, like renowned infectious diseases doctor Anthony Fauci, line up behind the president. The unquestioned star, though, is their showman-like boss.

Held at around 5:30 or 6:00 pm in Washington, the briefings are hardly brief, clocking in at 90 minutes or more.

First come the aides, quietly standing around an empty space at the lectern. Then, with the timing honed during a long reality television career, in strides Trump.

He reads dutifully from a lengthy prepared statement giving updates about what the government is doing. Next he introduces his subordinates, asking them one by one to say a few words.

Then with an "any questions?" the real show begins.

In his unique style, Trump riffs on everything from foreign policy to his personal achievements, the "dishonest" media, and his own at times off-the-cuff medical opinions. The vibe is instantly recognizable to anyone who has watched the now mothballed Make America Great Again rallies, just minus the cheering.

By the end, journalists in the room -- their numbers slashed to respect social distancing, and dwindling further due to coronavirus quarantines -- are running out of questions. Trump, though, can barely tear himself away from the cameras.

"I've gotten to like this room," he said.

Trapped in the basement

The briefings secure big live audiences. More than eight million people watch on average, rising at times above 12 million.

The Trump show, as always, is a hit.

Contrast that to the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The former vice president under Barack Obama was riding high just a few weeks ago with stunning defeats of his final primary rival, Bernie Sanders.

Then, just as he was set to pivot his campaign to taking on Trump, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Like millions of other Americans, the 77-year-old Biden ended up trapped in his home.

This week he has finally sought to bust out of isolation with a studio set up in his book-lined basement. But technical glitches and a campaign machine seemingly unable to shift gears quickly give Biden's early efforts a surprisingly amateur look.

Hosting a virtual happy hour exchange with supporters by Zoom video link on Wednesday evening, Biden chatted fluently about foreign policy, the coronavirus and much else.

Yet only about 2,000 people were watching.

Trump, meanwhile, was in full flow in the White House briefing room.

Journalism or propaganda?

Because Trump goes off topic so often and makes medical claims that his experts then have to walk back, some US media organizations are arguing for scaling down the live coverage.

"If he keeps lying like he has been every day on stuff this important, all of us should stop broadcasting it," Rachel Maddow, an energetic Trump critic who hosts on the MSNBC network, said last week.

The New York Times editorial board said it was "time to put an end" to the daily briefings.

Veteran ABC news interviewer Ted Koppel also said the media needs to rethink traditional coverage of such an untraditional president.

"Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context," he wrote to the Times.

"I recognize that presidential utterances occupy a unique category. Within that category, however, President Trump has created a special compartment all his own."

Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary under George W. Bush, a Republican, says leftwing journalists are simply trying to isolate Trump from the people.

"Trump's job approval hits the highest level of his presidency," he tweeted. "It's no coincidence that many resistance reporters want to take his Coronavirus briefings off the air."