Big media is covering up Trump’s terrifying incoherence in a time of emergency

Here is some of what Donald Trump had to say Wednesday evening at a briefing intended to inform and reassure the American public about a public-health emergency:

This will end. This will end. You look at flu season. I said 26,000 people. I never heard of a number like that: 26,000 people, going up to 69,000 people, doctor, you told me before. 69,000 people die every year — from 20 to 69 — every year from the flu. Think of that. That’s incredible. So far, the results of all of this that everybody is reading about — and part of the thing is, you want to keep it the way it is, you don’t want to see panic, because there’s no reason to be panicked about it — but when I mentioned the flu, I asked the various doctors, “Is this just like flu?” Because people die from the flu. And this is very unusual. And it is a little bit different, but in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s a little bit tougher, but we have it so well under control, I mean, we really have done a very good job. [Watch video.]

Before and after knowledgeable public-health officials had made clear that a further spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is inevitable:

I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. We have the best people in the world. You see that from the study. We have the best prepared people, the best people in the world. Congress is willing to give us much more than we’re even asking for. That’s nice for a change. But we are totally ready, willing, and able to — it’s a term that we use, it’s “ready, willing, and able.” It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger. It may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens. But regardless of what happens, we’re totally prepared. [Watch video.]

On the stock market declines:

I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage make fools out of themselves, and they say, “If we ever have a president like this” — and there’s always a possibility, it’s an election, you know, who knows what happens? I think we’re going to win, I think we’re going to win by a lot — but when they look at statements made by the people standing behind those podiums, I think that has a huge effect.

Reporter: You don’t you think it had to do with the coronavirus?

Well, I think it did, I think it did, but I think you can add quite a bit of selloff to what they’re seeing. Because they’re seeing the potential – you know, again, I think we’re going to win. I feel very confident of it. We’ve done everything – and much more — than I said we were going to do. You look at what we’ve done. What we’ve done is incredible, with the tax cuts and regulation cuts, and rebuilding our military, taking care of our vets and getting them choice and accountability. All of the things we’ve done. Protecting our Second Amendment. I mean, they view that, the Second Amendment, they’re going to destroy the Second Amendment. When people look at that, they say “this is not good.” So you add that in. I really believe that’s a factor. But, no, what we’re talking about is the virus. That’s what we’re talking about. I do believe that’s — I do believe in terms of CNBC and in terms of Fox Business, I do believe that’s a factor, yeah. And I think after I win the election, I think the stock market is going to boom like it’s never boomed before. Just like the last time I won the election. The day after the stock market went up like a rocket ship. [Watch video.]

On the Democrats, in between asking for their cooperation:

I think Speaker Pelosi is incompetent. She lost the Congress once. I think she’s going to lose it again. She lifted my poll numbers up 10 points I never thought that I would see that so quickly and so easily. I’m leading everybody. We’re doing great. I don’t want to do it that way. It’s almost unfair if you think about it. But I think she’s incompetent.

I think she is not thinking about the country and instead of making a statement like that where I have been beating her routinely at everything instead of making a statement like that she should be saying we have to work together because we have a big problem potential only and may be it’s going to be a very little problem. I hope that it’s going to be a very little problem but we have to work together. Instead she wants to do that same thing with crying Chuck Schumer. [Watch video.]

On his devastating budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control:

We can get money. And we can increase staff. We know all the good people. There’s a question I asked the doctors before. Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. If we ever need them we can get them very quickly. And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly. For instance, we’re bringing some people in tomorrow that are already in this great government that we have, and very specifically for this. We can build up very, very quickly, and we’ve already done that. I mean, we have a great staff, and using Mike, I’m doing that because he’s in the administration, and he’s very good at doing what he does and doing as it relates to this. [Watch video.]

On staying healthy:

View this the same as the flu. When somebody sneezes, I mean, I try and bail out as much as possible when there’s sneezing. I had a man come up to me a week ago, I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and I said, “How you doing?” He said, “Fine, fine,” he hugged me, kissed me. I said, “Are you well?” He says “No.” He said, “I have the worst fever and the worst flu.” And he’s hugging and kissing me. So I said, excuse me, I went out and started washing my hands. So you have to do that. I really think, doctor, you want to treat this like you treat the flu, right? [Watch video.]

Tell me this is normal.

Tell me this is unremarkable.

Tell me this is behavior by the President of the United States of United States of America at a critically important briefing about a potentially deadly pandemic that does not bear mentioning.

Wednesday’s briefing was arguably the most abnormal moment yet in a profoundly abnormal presidency.

But top news organizations, rather than accurately representing Trump’s alarming behavior, made it sound like nothing untoward happened at all.

They made it sound like some real news was made: That Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus; that the president urged calm.

But even the Pence “news” appears to be a sham, and a clusterfuck: In addition to being basically a fuck-you to the medical community — given Pence’s proud defiance of scientific truths — it was apparently a last-minute decision based on political optics that blindsided Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who at the same time insisted that he was still in charge.

This one really wasn’t hard. It was obvious to anyone listening to Trump’s rambling, often incoherent, self-centered, stream-of-consciousness ad-libbing – much of it straight out of his political rallies — that:

  • Trump had no real understanding of what he was talking about.
  • He had no sense of what was required of him as president.
  • He sees this as being all about him.
  • There are only so many things that can come out of his head.

Smart people watching him — like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes or the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, or the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser — were left in no doubt.

Anyone with a modest amount of expertise in public health got it. On MSNBC, Ezekiel Emanuel, currently serving as a special advisor to the director general of the World Health Organization, explained:

I found most of what he said a little incoherent. And, you know, he’s a guy that admitted that he’s surprised that 25,000 to 69,000 people each year die of the flu. That just tells you how little he actually knows about public health and about the health of the American public, because every doctor knows that and lots of health policy experts know that. And he just told you, he just revealed how ignorant he is about the situation. We don’t know how similar or dissimilar this is to the flu. We know one thing: It is actually more communicable than the flu. It passes between people very, very easily.

As for the coverage, while politicians aren’t often the best media critics, I had to hand it to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) for getting this exactly right:

And here’s former top Obama staffer Ben Rhodes:

The Coverage

But at the New York Times, Michael D. Shear, Noah Weiland and Katie Rogers engaged in something even worse than stenography: The cherrypicking of quotes that weren’t incoherent, that in no way whatsoever indicated the true nature of the briefing. They led off:

President Trump named Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday to coordinate the government’s response to the coronavirus, even as he repeatedly played down the danger to the United States of a widespread domestic outbreak.

Nothing in that story told readers what they most needed to know.

Even in a sidebar on Trump’s credibility, Annie Karni, Michael Crowley and Maggie Haberman simply called Trump’s briefing “casual”. Then they punted:

Mr. Trump could face a moment of reckoning. Maintaining a calm and orderly response during an epidemic, in which countless lives could be at stake, requires that the president be a reliable public messenger.

There was also a cutesy sidebar by Katie Rogers about Trump’s self-declared germophobia.

Inexcusable.

Some news organizations, while treating the briefing like a normal one, at least called  attention to the obvious contradiction between Trump’s account and that of the public-health officials who he allowed to speak briefly.

So, under the lame headline “Trump downplays risk, places Pence in charge of coronavirus outbreak response,” Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb noted, six paragraphs in:

Trump’s positive message was at odds with the statements by top members of his administration in recent days who have warned of an unpredictable virus that could spread into communities and upend Americans’ daily lives.

The president was contradicted almost in real time by some of the government experts who flanked him as he stood in the White House press briefing room.

“We could be just one or two people over the next short period of time,” Trump said of the virus’s impact in the United States.

Minutes later, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat warned Americans to prepare for the number of cases to grow.

“We can expect to see more cases in the United States,” Azar said.

“We do expect more cases,” Schuchat said.

And much later in the story, the finally offered their first indication of what the briefing was really like:

But his news conference quickly devolved into campaign-style attacks on Democrats, predictions of a stock market rally and self-congratulatory assessments of his handling of the crisis.

They knew it was farcical – one of the authors indicated as much on Twitter — they just didn’t think it was worth mentioning much.

An online-only sidebar by Aaron Blake got closer to reality:

Trump repeatedly sought to pat himself and his administration on the back, even as the scope and severity of the viral outbreak worldwide and in the United States is still coming into focus.

Blake also noted:

When he was asked why the stock market has plunged 2,000 points in recent days, Trump acknowledged part of the reason was coronavirus fears. But he also blamed the Federal Reserve, Boeing, General Motors, and he said he thought the markets were suddenly worried about one of his potential 2020 Democratic opponents beating him for reelection — despite that campaign having been going for more than a year.

And Amber Phillips waited until the absolute last paragraph of her Post news analysis to explain the obvious:

To deal with something as serious and life-threatening as a global virus, health officials say the White House needs to stay factual and apolitical. We haven’t seen much of that from the president so far.

In the Los Angeles Times, Noah Bierman, Jennifer Haberkorn and Noam Levey offered their readers some context, by noting Trump’s obvious motives:

Desperate to stanch anxieties on Wall Street and public fears that the White House is unprepared for a major coronavirus outbreak, President Trump on Wednesday named Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate the administration’s response while asserting that “the risk to the American people remains very low.”

It looks like a lot of news organizations wrote their headlines and settled on their ledes before the briefing was even over, or they would have recognized that Pence’s appointment was actually just a sham.

After Trump left the podium, Azar jumped up to make this announcement:

If i could just clarify, I think you’re not getting the point here of this. I’m still chairman of the task force. Mick Mulvaney has been serving, actually, an invaluable role for me as acting chief of staff, helping me to coordinate across the government with my colleagues and the whole of government approach. Having the vice president gives me the biggest stick one could have in the government on this whole of government approach.

Reporter: You don’t feel like you’re being replaced?

Not in the least. When this was mentioned to me, I was delighted that I get to have the vice president helping in this way. Delighted. Absolutely.

So there was really nothing normal about that briefing at all.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Two points:

    Reporters should ID and use as many local and state public health experts as possible in their reporting, and they should steer clear of using any federal sources because of Trump’s affinity for suppression and purges of anything and person he believes is “against” him. This will make fed. statements unreliable and unsafe.

    Reporters should use language which ID false and misleading statements made by Trump/Pence/Cabinet flunkies and feds by explaining how influencing people who would take these as truthful will be harmed by them.

    The GuardianUS is reporting that professional nurses (RNs) in China and the UK are already over maxxed in working hours, working with defective or missing personal protective equipment (known as PPEs in the healthcare field), and are pleading for more nurses, more ventilator and critical care capacity and more immediately available equipment, relief and safety mechanisms for direct patient care clinicians and staff.

    Our USPHS doesn’t have authority or capacity to ramp up professional nurse availability, care capacity or even acquisition of PPEs. The example provided by the Wuhan nurse was that she was taped into a completely covered bunnysuit, wearing goggles, no skin exposed, and was not allowed to take enough of a break during menstruation to change into sanitary underclothes. Volunteers rounded up 1000+ adult diapers, and she reports that wearing those is how women wearing the PPEs are dealing with no bathroom breaks and menstruation supplies.

    The US news hasn’t picked up that the limits on providing adequate nursing care at the right intensity of care will limit how many patients receive adequate care, or whether nurses will strike, stay home, or quit their jobs

    As far as I know, only the Natl Nurses Union has been contacted for a statement, but no nursing leadership organization is providing any guidance or information. I’d be contacting NINR, AACN (Amer. Assoc. Colleges of Nursing), the American Nurses Association, and AONE – the American Hosp. Association’s nursing executive subgroup.

  2. I worked as a Microbiologist for my entire career. When I watched that press conference, I sat here with my mouth hanging open. It was obvious to me that he not only comprehended nothing about how viruses work, he is literally incapable of comprehending it. Of course, he was briefed on all of this by some very knowledgeable people. And nothing registered with him. I feel sorry for those medical professionals who had to brief him. It must have been like trying to explain virology to a planarian worm.

    I am also a Hoosier who survived Pence as my Governor, and when he was announced as being in charge of this absurdity of a response, the words that came out of my mouth are not suitable for sharing here. Pence cares nothing about public health, has no idea of how to properly respond to a crisis, and people in my state died due to his inaction.

    For anyone, in the media or not, to portray that press conference as anything other than the horrorshow it was is beyond denial. It is in alternate reality territory.

  3. FOR FAILING TO CONVICT THIS LUNATIC, AND FOR PUTTING OUR LIVES IN VERY SERIOUS DANGER, THE REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS MUST BE OUSTED IN 2020 AND ALL FUTURE ELECTIONS. THEY ARE COMPLICIT IN THE MULTITUDES OF DANGER TRUMP IS PUTTING US IN. IT IS NOW CRUCIAL AND IMPERATIVE THAT WE OUST THE REPUBLICANS FROM CONGRESS.

  4. All of this matches how Trump is being briefed about threats to the security of the United States. He is incapable of digesting anything that contains more than a paragraph of text. He is being given PDB that features pictures of him and graphics that are, at best, digestible by someone with an elementary school reading level.

    This is one facet of a national threat; what we do not get to see are the PDBs that contain complex threat warnings that would, in a normal presidency, require deliberation and action. The State Department has been gutted. The Department of Defense is staffed with lobbyists, if it is even staffed at all. The National Security Council has been hollowed out and purged of expertise.

    And everyone on the national security beat knows this. They should be telling us this, daily. But they are terrified of losing access.

    When you put access above actual journalism and the public interest, we’re left with a normalized presidency run by people who wouldn’t even show up on the D-list of nominees in a previous GOP administration.

  5. While I completely agree with your criticism of the corporate media who bend over backward to try to avoid being slammed yet again by this President and his wacko sycophants, I don’t depend on those same media to interpret what I can see and hear for myself.

    I listened to that off-the-wall “press conference” live, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me just how nuts Trump sounded and how frightening was the way things unfolded.

    First, Trump praised himself and his own response, making up some “people” who supposedly called him “racist” for closing off travel from China while also claiming it was an “unprecedented” step. (Presidents and federal agencies have previously instituted bans on long-distance flights to slow the spread of epidemics.)

    Then Pence and Azar each took a turn sounding as much like a North Korean general as possible in praising their Dear Leader and his amazing and deft handling of the situation. Pence said only that, though he said a lot more words that meant nothing. Azar, as noted, proceeded to contradict Trump while praising him.

    Then, of course, Trump had to take the microphone back for a campaign speech before taking a few questions that he pretty much brushed off or repeated his string of lies in response.

    If the New York Times was too afraid of Trump’s wrath to say as much, I didn’t need their affirmation of what I already knew.

    Moral: the media are many, varied, and fungible. Think critically, trust your BS detectors, and vote your conscience.

  6. Monkey business as usual. The IOTUS (Idiot Of The United States) grinds the organ and flunkies perform a dans macabre. And macabre indeed is the lack of coherent planning, preparedness, and realisation of the reality of the potential threat to the US and the world. Yet IOTUS thinks it’s all a conspiracy to deny him the right to another four years of sticking it everyone and everything associated with the reviled Obama.

  7. There’s a pattern here that has to be understood. It applied to the inauguration crowds, it applied to the claim of illegal voting; it applied to “spying” on his campaign; it applied to his security officials who told Congress Russia is working to re-elect him.

    When the dictator makes a statement that is at odds with reality, there must be a change to reality to correspond to his statement.

    Anyone who fails to change is an enemy.

  8. Sure, Trump is obviously a dementia sufferer. I suspected that from the day he rode down the escalator, and became certain of the diagnosis the day he blew the alibi for firing Comey on national TV. Between that day and this, there have been at least half a dozen episodes of Trump word and deed that have no possible explanation other than dementia. So yes, Trump suffers from dementia to the point that he is clearly unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office he holds.

    Where I disagree with what is written here is on the point that somehow it is the media’s job to do something about a president who is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office. I of course phrase the matter that way to point out that there are people and institutions that actually are, unequivocally and explicitly, charged with removing from office a president who is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office. Those persons and institutions do not include the media.

    Yes, completing suspension under provisions of the 25th requires the VP plus cabinet, or the VP plus some “other body” appointed by law, then 2/3 majorities in both chambers if the president contests his suspension, as this one surely will. This has been the consistent answer whenever I have seen the use of the 25th brought up, that our side can’t finish the job, therefore the 25th has to be simply ignored and forgotten and the start of the process not even considered. Well, the media can’t finish the job of suspension either, yet here we are demanding that they do something about this president’s cognitive disability. We do this despite the fact that our side’s office holders in the House actually do have the power and the duty to begin the process by having a committee investigate the need for that “other body”.

    We shouldn’t expect the media to take up the question of Trump’s ability to discharge the powers and duties until the House makes that issue news by starting those hearings. Of course we don’t have the majorities in place, now, to finish the job of suspension from office, but we will never get those majorities until and unless our side starts the process by making the question of Trump’s dementia a legitimate subject of public controversy. The media has no powers or duties, the House majority does. Look to them to act, not the media. The media will follow that lead, but it will not lead, nor should it. By the time the committee hearings and the media following suit have dug into this question, maybe we will have the majorities needed. Maybe not, or maybe it would take raising this question plus a devastating catastrophe obviously caused by Trump’s dementia to assemble those majorities, but it is dead certain that those majorities will not assemble themselves, even in the face of a catastrophe.

    A catastrophe will just be used to frighten people into even more blind and abject support of the Leader unless the ground is laid to see the catastrophe as resulting from the president’s disability. It may actually be too late. Having failed to do its duty for so long, any move by the House now, much less in the wake of some catastrophe such a COVID-19 turning out to be on par with the flu of 1919-20, would just seem opportunistic. We’ve lost our best chance, but starting the 25th process is still our only chance of getting the dementia patient out of the WH. Trump’s dementia is the immediate and continuing proven health catastrophe facing this nation, while there is still some hope that COVID-19 will not get much worse.

  9. Worth noting: Both MSNBC and CNN cut away from the briefing after the scripted remarks, just as the unscripted Q+A was starting. Any viewers who did not flip to CSPAN missed the most incoherent parts.

  10. Thom Hartmann and a doctor guest he had on one of his broadcasts speculated that Trump may, to say the least, dabble with some helpful intoxicants. His frequent sniffing during many of his press engagements is curious, to say the least.
    Whether or not there is any substance to the speculation relating to Trump’s narcotic use his recent press conference is cause for concern. Trump looked, sleepy and distracted throughout. Those standing around him – and particularly Pence – looked to me as though they were desperately trying to act as if all was normal. It clearly wasn’t. I predict that we will see more of this bizarre behaviour as the news turns grimmer, the economy tanks and the impossibility of controlling the narrative starts to dawn on the grown-ups who remain within the Trump orbit.

  11. So Dan writes: “Tell me this is behavior by the President of the United States of United States of America at a critically important briefing about a potentially deadly pandemic that does not bear mentioning.

    ”Wednesday’s briefing was arguably the most abnormal moment yet in a profoundly abnormal presidency.

    ”But top news organizations, rather than accurately representing Trump’s alarming behavior, made it sound like nothing untoward happened at all.

    ”They made it sound like some real news was made: That Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus; that the president urged calm.”

    Has Dan ever reported for a daily or even hourly, news outlet? What would Dan do instead, without embracing Dan’s personal judgment? I’m not a fan of critics who don’t demonstrate a constructive way to perform what he critiques. Where has Dan offered any way to remedy the problems he identifies? Where has any news organization adapted or adopted a Froomkin remedy? This is the same voice he used during the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Asking for former colleagues still doing daily journalism.

    • I have in fact made it a point in this whole project to highlight “best practices” as well as poor ones, although I could do better.

      (And yes, I’ve been a reporter at several newspapers and web sites, thank you!)

      In this piece, for instance, as I noted, the Washington Post article did have some really quite good stuff in it — it was just buried! So, since you asked, here is how reporters could realistically have written this story:

      >Far from responding to the coronavirus threat in the sober, factual and apolitical terms appropriate to an unpredictable disease that could spread into communities and upend Americans’ daily lives, Donald Trump held a news conference on Wednesday that quickly devolved into rambling campaign-style attacks on Democrats, predictions of a stock market rally and self-congratulatory assessments of his handling of the crisis.

      >And although Trump repeatedly played down the danger to the United States of a widespread domestic outbreak of the coronavirus, his positive message was contradicted in real time by some of the government experts who flanked him as he stood in the White House press briefing room.

      >“We could be just one or two people over the next short period of time,” Trump said of the virus’s impact in the United States.

      > Minutes later, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat warned Americans to prepare for the number of cases to grow.

      >“We can expect to see more cases in the United States,” Azar said.

      >“We do expect more cases,” Schuchat said.

      >When he was asked why the stock market has plunged 2,000 points in recent days, Trump acknowledged part of the reason was coronavirus fears. But he also blamed the Federal Reserve, Boeing, General Motors, and he said he thought the markets were suddenly worried about one of his potential 2020 Democratic opponents beating him for reelection — despite that campaign having been going for more than a year.

      >Many of Trump’s reassurances fell flat. “I don’t think it’s inevitable,” he said of the virus’s spread in the U.S., contradicting to public-health officials. “It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. We have the best people in the world.”

      >He continued: “But we are totally ready, willing, and able to — it’s a term that we use, it’s ‘ready, willing, and able.’ It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger. It may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens. But regardless of what happens, we’re totally prepared.”

      >Public-health experts were aghast. “I found most of what he said a little incoherent,” Ezekiel Emanuel, currently serving as a special advisor to the director general of the World Health Organization, said on MSNBC. “And, you know, he’s a guy that admitted that he’s surprised that 25,000 to 69,000 people each year die of the flu. That just tells you how little he actually knows about public health and about the health of the American public, because every doctor knows that and lots of health policy experts know that. And he just told you, he just revealed how ignorant he is about the situation. We don’t know how similar or dissimilar this is to the flu. We know one thing: It is actually more communicable than the flu. It passes between people very, very easily.”

  12. A little incoherent? That should win the Nobel Prize for understatement of the century. I really find it astonishing that no one has made an intervention with this guy. There are very clearly misfiring synapses in the substance that he has between his ears.

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