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Don’t let President Donald Trump use TV to fool you again.
He came on camera at dinnertime Tuesday to try and reclaim a media stage he owned earlier this year. Those initial forums were billed as daily briefings on the pandemic, but quickly devolved into the president attacking opponents, lying about his miserable performance and giving the nation health information so bad it could be fatal. One of his greatest hits was the suggestion that ingesting household cleaners like Lysol might be an effective way to kill the virus. Trump had health experts often lined up behind him, but he mainly used them as props silently lending credibility to his off-the-wall claims and flat-out lies.
As the audience drifted away and polls showed an overwhelming rejection of his performance, the president said the sessions were “not worth the effort,” and he shut them down in April.
In his return Tuesday, he didn’t bother to bring any health experts onstage. It was only him reading from a script and taking a few questions for a grand total of about 30 minutes.
I would not be writing about it if I had not seen some morning-after analyses talking about the president “reversing” himself and striking a more “somber” and “serious” tone.
Please. This president is incapable of seriousness let alone the gravitas this public health crisis has demanded since March.
Yes, Trump said in his Tuesday briefing that the pandemic “will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better,” but everything else was him again trying to spin a narrative about how effectively he handled the crisis from the very beginning and how good the future looks because of the steps he has and is taking.
“We’ve done much better than most,” he said, comparing the U.S. with other countries, “and with the fatality rate at a lower rate than most.”
Fact: We are actually among the 10 highest fatality rates.
And, yes, he encouraged people to wear masks and social distance in the Tuesday session. But his own actions the night before undercut that message when he showed up for a fundraiser at his Washington hotel without a mask. And this just hours after he had tweeted that wearing a mask was “patriotic.”
Furthermore, Tuesday’s mask message was only about four months too late. He should have been saying it in March. Instead, he helped politicize the wearing of a mask and stoked culture-war confrontations about wearing them in public that are still going on. It is safe to say that tens of thousands of Americans might still be alive if a strong message on masking had come from the White House and been echoed throughout all the federal agencies involved. But Trump takes no responsibility for the lack of such messaging.
(The only time Trump went off script Tuesday was to say, “I wish her well,” when asked about Ghislaine Maxwell, the Jeffrey Epstein associate charged with having recruited young women for him to sexually abuse.)
Trump’s return to the TV stage is really about politics, not public health. The president was humiliated by his Tulsa rally where he claimed RSVPs of more than a million, and only 6,200 persons actually showed in a venue that seats three times that many.
Trump can no longer fill a big hall with followers. Between the pandemic and polls that show two-thirds of Americans disapprove of his handling of it, he has lost the third pillar of his winning media strategy in 2016: rallies.
And he’s being squeezed on the other two pillars as social media outlets like Twitter are branding his lies and attacks with warnings. Meanwhile, the third leg, TV, is getting tougher about giving him airtime.
I was happy to see that the broadcast networks offered no live coverage Tuesday. CNN did not carry the start of the president’s briefing, and while MSNBC did, Chuck Todd appeared in half the screen at one point to fact check what the president had said from the podium. Fox News, the channel known for its slavish support for Trump, of course, carried all of it.
Here’s hoping the networks and other cable channels — those that do real journalism — will block Trump from exploiting their airwaves with these so-called briefings. Carry no part of them, I say, unless they feature public health officials instead of this trump.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.