It’d been three months since Donald Trump had given his staff a break. For weeks, some of his top advisers had repeatedly warned him that his madcap performances at the White House’s coronavirus press briefings were tanking his poll numbers and helping Joe Biden, until finally the president decided to stop doing them. Senior administration officials and task-force members were elated—their infamously stubborn boss had actually taken their advice.
But in the months following the cessation of those pressers, Trump’s numbers—nationally and in critical swing states—have kept falling. And according to two sources who’d spoken to the president this month, he began insisting that it was time to start going with his gut, again.
The president restarted the press briefings last week, after having asserted to his aides that the resulting three months of political foundering had vindicated his instincts to “control the agenda” and to flood the media as much as possible. His return to the lectern, he predicted, would help his poll numbers.
But while the early results suggested that maybe Trump could keep a lid—even if just for a few seconds—on his self-destructive impulses, increasingly, the worst fears of the president’s staff are being realized.
“When he started doing them again [starting last week], my thought was, ‘Oh, great, this fucking shit again,’” said a senior administration official who works closely with the White House coronavirus task force. “And now we’re all talking about demon ejaculation.”
Having gotten the stage that he wanted, Trump has begun—once more—aggressively hawking hydroxychloroquine, a drug that his own administration and public-health officials fear won’t help combat COVID. He’s continued to pettily criticize and express his jealousy of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert who enjoys a far higher approval rating than the president’s. And he’s publicly doubled down on his elevation of a doctor who touts hydroxychloroquine and has claimed that fornicating with demons and witches in dreams can cause health problems.
The end result has been Republicans, once more, wondering whether the president can get out of his own way. Asked Wednesday afternoon if he was glad that Trump was back doing the televised briefings, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who previously advised the president to cut back on them—laughed, then told The Daily Beast, “I’m glad that he’s back” doing the briefings, but added, “he’s had more discipline [lately] but that video with the doctors probably didn’t help… I mean, the message is, ‘Here’s what I’m doing to help schools reopen, here’s what I’m doing on testing… [and] the economy,’ rather than getting into which drugs you should take… Rather than talking about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, he’s at his best when he’s talking about what he’s doing to help [the country].”
Graham, one of Trump’s preferred confidants and golfing buddies on Capitol Hill, continued, “This is just an example of how you get off-script. When the president is talking about what the federal government is doing to help states, [he’s doing well]… When you get into the hydroxychloroquine wars, you’re probably not helping yourself.”
Inside the White House, Trump’s recent comments have resurfaced an increasingly tiresome debate over whether the president’s prospects benefit more if he is bottled up or let loose—in all his messy, woefully off-the-cuff glory—for the public to see.
Two other administration officials working on the effort said this week that their individual plans were simple, even if Trump does use his public appearances on his pandemic response to do things like wish accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell “well.”
The plan is to largely ignore Trump’s shenanigans and just, in the words of one of the officials, “continue doing our job to the best of our abilities, and the president is entitled to say whatever he wants whenever he wants.” A source with knowledge of the matter said there were “no plans” at this time for Trump to scale back his revived briefing appearances, noting that “he’s just started” this latest incarnation, and that the president is pleased with how things are going.
Reached for comment on Wednesday evening, White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews emailed, “The president is his own best communicator and his highly rated briefings give him the opportunity to speak directly to the American people about the federal government’s unprecedented coronavirus response that has saved millions of lives.”
But while various Trump officials may be burying their heads in the proverbial sand, the president has no shortage of unflinching defenders encouraging him to speak out more. On Tuesday, when conservative commentator Erick Erickson pointedly questioned whether a doctor who “thinks people screw demons in their sleep and alien DNA is in use in medical practices today” would be the “most effective spokesperson” for the drug, Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump and his re-election campaign, tweeted back: “If by ‘most effective’ you mean the only medical professional and actual doctor with experience treating COVID-19 willing to speak up, then yes.”
Despite the most recent burst of Trump-fueled noise and excess, his latest whims and flirtations do not appear to be translating to administration priorities. With the president embarking on a new phase of his long-standing pro-hydroxychloroquine crusade, the White House COVID task force was focusing on other matters entirely.
In a call with the nation’s governors Tuesday, audio of which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, Deborah Birx, coordinator of the coronavirus task force, warned that there were a handful of new states experiencing an uptick in positive cases and that the virus would spread throughout the community if leaders did not implement strict mask mandates.
Birx also recommended local officials close bars and limit indoor public gatherings. Fauci and Vice President Mike Pence were also on the call and recommended states take more aggressive action to stop the virus from spreading rapidly before hospitals experience an influx of patients.
Task-force officials discussed a range of other initiatives the team is taking to contain the spread of the virus before school starts in the fall. The administration has repeatedly called on governors to reopen schools fully in September, despite the growing number of cases and deaths in certain areas of the country, particularly the south and southwest.
Even some of President Trump’s most devoted supporters acknowledge, however, that they are approaching reopening with severe caution. Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, a Fox News contributor and a prominent informal faith adviser to Trump, told The Daily Beast this month that his “church school is carefully looking at [the] situation in Dallas—a hot spot—and currently planning for a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction.”
Pence reiterated the administration’s position on Tuesday’s call, telling governors that several government agencies were working to speed up testing and implement testing surveillance systems in some of the nation’s colleges and universities. Adm. Brett Giroir, the testing czar and commander of the U.S. Public Health Service, said Quest labs would soon make an announcement that it would speed up the turnaround times for COVID-19 test. He said that by September he anticipated the U.S. would have the capacity to conduct 16 million point-of-care tests per month with a 15-minute turnaround time.
But during the entire hour-and-15-minute conference call, hydroxychloroquine did not come up once. Neither did the issue of demon sperm.