As the coronavirus has worsened, members of the task force President Donald Trump has assigned to combat the pandemic have reached out to prominent conservative social-media “influencers” and right-wing TV and radio stars to offer them private briefings and information sessions with Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials, The Daily Beast has learned.
The communications strategy began backstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering that takes place just outside of Washington, D.C., and which happened to have an attendee diagnosed with coronavirus this year. The direct outreach occurred on Feb. 27—the day after Trump tapped Pence to lead the task force. There, the vice president hosted an informal briefing on COVID-19 and the administration’s latest efforts, with several right-leaning personalities with large followings on Twitter and other social-media platforms, according to a source with direct knowledge of the gathering.
The following Wednesday, Pence hosted another closed-door meeting with conservative “influencers,” with this one lasting for roughly an hour in the vice president’s office on White House grounds. The meeting was helmed by senior Trump administration officials such as Pence and Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff who previously served as Trump’s legislative-affairs director.
According to three people with knowledge of the meeting, attendees included Fox News fixture and prolific MAGA tweeter Dan Bongino; former Trump adviser and current War Room: 2020 podcast host Jason Miller; Newsmax TV host and Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer; former White House official and Sinclair “must-run” commentator Boris Epshteyn; Sinclair anchor and ex-Fox News host Eric Bolling; and former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a Trump surrogate.
During the meeting, attendees discussed how their collective Twitter following—estimated at “tens of millions”—could be used as a bullhorn for the administration, these sources said. Pence discussed the difficulties the administration was confronting related to producing coronavirus test kits, as well as airline cleaning protocols, nursing-home cleaning measures, and the number of masks the administration hopes are produced by the company 3M. At one point, Pence mentioned how he’d recently had what he thought was a very productive conversation with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and then expressed frustration to the room about how she subsequently went before the press to bash him as anti-science, sources recounted.
The outreach from Pence illustrates the lengths that the White House is going to push its message on the coronavirus as well as the distinctive challenges it is confronting in the modern media landscape. All administrations backchannel to like-minded surrogates. But with respect to the pandemic, conservative media has been a hotbed for skepticism about the virus and its lethality.
The TV-ready allies and social-media influencers the Trump administration convened have mostly not gone off the deep end of conspiracy theory. Instead, these surrogates have generally towed the line, singing the praises of the president and lashing out at his media critics.
On the podcast he co-hosts with Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Miller likened Trump to a wartime president, in a time when the American “way of life is under attack from this foreign virus.”
Epshteyn, for his part, has accused CNN of continuing “to do everything possible to attack @realDonaldTrump and cause panic.”
Bongino has focused his commentary on coronavirus on China and the government’s response and transparency. On a recent Fox News segment with Sean Hannity, he accused Geraldo Rivera, who was criticizing White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and describing a relative panicking over the president’s Oval Office speech, of propagating “Chinese propaganda.”
“The Wuhan virus… is a foreign virus,” Bongino said. “Blaming it on Stephen Miller is outrageously stupid.” (Senior Trump officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have made a point of trying to rebrand the illness as the “Wuhan virus” or “Wuhan coronavirus” as frequently as possible.)
The effusive praise for Trump has become intrinsic to the administration’s communications strategy in recent weeks, even when Trump has clearly fumbled.
For weeks the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force has struggled to maintain continuity in messaging, with different departments seemingly operating off different scripts and with different ideas about how to disseminate information to the public. Part of that tension is internal, with a White House and a president having been desperate to calm the markets at a time when state governments are calling for help amid rising death tolls.
Through it all, the vice president’s office and communications teams on the task force have tried to minimize the noise, calm Americans, and relentlessly laud the president’s response to the outbreak in the U.S. The efforts to loop in conservative influencers has been seen as a way to maneuver beyond the regular briefings to the White House press corps and reach a different and more sympathetic media cohort.
Reached for comment Monday, Short said that “from the start, the vice president has said that he wants to get as much information out to the American people as possible… There are a lot of different channels of communication. It’s not just press briefings every day, it’s not just TV interviews… There’s a whole lot of different streams of information. And one of those is surrogates.”
Short said that his office had asked White House communications official Julia Hahn “to put this [meeting] together for us. We’ll probably continue to do that… There’s one more in development now, but I hope we continue to do these regularly, either in person or via teleconference. It’s all part of a larger strategy.”
Spicer returned a request for comment, acknowledging the meeting, saying “the vice president and Ambassador Brix did a great job ensuring we had a clear understanding of the whole-of-government approach being utilized to address and contain the coronavirus.”
In addition to the efforts to get the administration’s message out through sympathetic channels, the outreach also underscores the degree to which the vice president has asserted his power over the White House’s efforts to respond to the virus. Late last month, Trump tapped Pence as the leader of the coronavirus task force—a team of scientists, academics, and other federal officials focusing on ensuring the safety of Americans through the pandemic.
Two officials inside the White House told The Daily Beast that Trump appointed Pence to the position as a way to streamline communications and messaging to the American public on what the administration was doing to contain and prevent the spreading virus. But in the first few days of the transition, the move seemed to cause more problems internally than was expected. Up until Pence’s appointment, Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar had led the coronavirus effort. And even after Pence stepped into the leadership role, Azar was claiming top authority.
“I’m still chairman of the task force,” he told reporters.
Meanwhile, officials on the task force disagreed on what kind of information to relay to the public and at what speed. The scientists and academics, for example, argued that the vice president should clearly communicate the worst-case scenario so that Americans could prepare themselves. But other members of the task force pushed back against that idea, saying it would cause panic and spook the markets.
Pence had largely prevailed in that battle. Though Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the task force, appeared to try to publicly push out information that the White House had yet to acknowledge in a congressional hearing last week, when he told lawmakers that the worst was yet to come,.
Not only is the vice president’s office briefing and meeting with social-media influencers, it is also meeting with Republicans on Capitol Hill. Two officials told The Daily Beast on Monday that staffers from Pence’s office had spoken with communications officers in GOP offices, providing information about the spread of the virus and the administration’s efforts to adjust to the changing demands.
In an effort to promote the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, officials inside the building are sending emails to reporters and others highlighting the work. In one email sent the night of Trump’s Oval Office address, titled “What They Are Saying,” Pence’s office sent out a list of tweets from lawmakers, officials and media, including from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Rep. Mark Green (R-TN), Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), and Mark Siegel, a Fox News guest.
Rep. Green posted a tweet with a video of himself on Fox News.
“President @realDonaldTrump has taken bold action to prevent the transmission of #coronavirus despite constant politicization from the left. This blame game has to stop. Thanks for having me on to discuss this morning @heatherChilders @FoxFriendsFirst”