NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—One day after briefing the press in an attempt to calm nerves about the spread of the new coronavirus, President Donald Trump spent 45 minutes talking to the lead actors of a low-budget conservative play about the so-called Deep State.
Phelim McAleer, the playwright behind the play FBI Lovebirds: Undercovers, told The Daily Beast that the meeting with Trump had originally been scheduled for just 15 minutes but went 30 minutes longer than that.
“We went for a 15-minute meeting that took 45 minutes,” McAleer said. “We were there for 45 minutes in the Oval Office, and he loves it, he loves the play.”
Trump hasn’t seen the play, according to McAleer, but praised its concept: a script based entirely on congressional testimony and the text messages between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who discussed the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s campaign and Russia while having an affair. The play’s leads—Superman actor Dean Cain and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Kristy Swanson—also attended the White House meeting.
McAleer said Trump complained in the meeting about “why some people are in prison [and] why other people aren’t”—an apparent re-airing of grievances that law enforcement officials involved in investigating his campaign haven’t been charged, while his own campaign staffers have been.
“He did most of the talking,” McAleer said.
McAleer said he couldn’t remember whether coronavirus came up in his discussions with the president. “It was 45 minutes,” he said, “we talked about a lot of things.”
The meeting was not listed on the president’s formal daily guidance and was only announced via a press release from New Hampshire Republican Party official with ties to James O'Keefe’s video sting operation, Project Veritas.
What else Trump was up to on Thursday was not entirely clear. In uncharacteristic fashion, the president barely tweeted throughout the day, as the Dow Jones industrial average took another massive dive driven by fears that the spread of the virus may severely disrupt global commerce and medical supply chains. Late Thursday afternoon, he called the press in for a meeting with Trump-friendly African-American leaders and media personalities to discuss community empowerment, several of whom called him the best president since Lincoln.
The White House did not return a request for comment. But according to three people who’ve independently discussed coronavirus with the president over the past three weeks, each said he seemed more preoccupied with his beliefs that Democrats and perceived enemies in the news media were going to try to use coronavirus panic to make him “look bad” than with the public health fallouts.
“He made a joke about how he could invent a cure for the coronavirus tomorrow, and Nancy Pelosi would still find ways to criticize him for it,” said one source who privately spoke to Trump in the past week
While the president was out of sight, Vice President Mike Pence was not. On Wednesday, the VP was tasked with spearheading the administration’s response to the virus’ outbreak. And by Thursday he had made several appointments to supplement the task force, including tapping a former Obama administration official, Debbie Birx, who had previously served as U.S. global AIDS coordinator.
That decision was widely cheered among Democrats and medical experts. But the goodwill was quickly replaced by concerns that the VP’s office was limiting public communication from various health agencies in an effort to assert control over messaging around the crisis. Officials at the office of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, told The Daily Beast that he was not able to speak to the press because the White House was handling all media requests. Meanwhile, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they would not be able to return media inquiries for a matter of “days” despite the intense public interest in gathering and disseminating official information on the virus.
Pence himself did not brief the press on Thursday. But he did speak at a gathering of conservative activists known as CPAC. And while there, he spent time talking to two conservative media luminaries.
According to the vice president’s pool report, Pence met with Fox News’ Sean Hannity for 15 minutes to discuss coronavirus for Hannity’s show. And Eric Bolling, a Sinclair TV host and friend of the president, told The Daily Beast that he too had an audience with Pence, behind the CPAC stage.
“I asked him if he thought $2.5 billion [for a federal response] was enough... I even asked him why not go further than even [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer’s $8.5 billion ask...and say… $18 billion,” Bolling said. “Whatever we don’t spend, return to the Treasury? He said, ‘President Trump has made it clear’ that there will be as much funding as needed to fight an epidemic here.”
According to Bolling, Pence said that he and Trump had talked about the administration’s coronavirus task force that day.
Later on Thursday, Pence went to the Department of Health and Human Services to meet with the task force himself, during which he re-emphasized that the president’s vision is a “whole of government approach” and declared that “in the days ahead the full resources of the government will be brought to bear.”
The vice president is slated to attend a fundraiser in Florida on Friday, hosted by former Congressman Vern Buchanon. As of now, the event appears to be still on. The VP’s office did not respond to numerous requests as to whether they were considering canceling.