Do you remember those innocent days when people said the presidency would change Donald Trump? It didn’t, except to accelerate his mental and moral decline. You only need to watch Trump’s briefings, as long as two hours some days, to realize that a catastrophe of biblical proportions won’t transform him either.
In fact, the pandemic he insists no one could have known about but everyone actually did is making him even less presidential. We may not respect the person occupying the White House, but we still respect the office. This is a weakness Trump exploits every day in his briefings, which should carry the warning “Viewer Discretion Advised.”
The man who has shrunk the office to the size of a pea gets a platform the size of the battleship Capt. Brett Crozier used to command.
As fine as the White House press corps is, it just doesn’t have the tools to deal with this man. Its members have become props in his long-running effort to destroy us. He revealed it to CBS’ Lesley Stahl in 2016: “I demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
His briefings are a devilishly effective forum for pursuing that goal, much more than the rallies they replaced. Rallies were good for revving up the crowd to boo the press corralled in a pen. How much better it is to tear into them one by one, to hold a show trial of nasty and horrid reporters like NBC’s Peter Alexander, PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor, and ABC’s Jonathan Karl, his latest foil.
While the factual updates are minimal on most days, the drama is routine—and provides Fox with endless replay material. The network returned the favor by providing Trump with his fifth press secretary, not counting Trump himself, Kayleigh McEnany. She replaces Stephanie Grisham, who couldn’t push Trump offstage long enough to hold a single press conference during her 288-day tenure.
McEnany arrives fully steeped in Trumpalia: Democrats were rooting for the virus; Trump’s conquered it so let’s move on. In case the boss wants to golf with impunity with 12,000 dead from the defeated virus—the Secret Service has a fleet of carts reserved at a Virginia country club—she claimed that Obama golfed the weekend Daniel Pearl was beheaded (a state senator then, he did not). She’ll cook something else up by tee time.
Trump likes Karl—he’s Jimmy Stewart by way of South Dakota, having covered four presidents and Trump since 1990—so much so the president cooperated with his book Front Row at the Trump Show. But Trump doesn’t like Karl so much that he’d resist making an example of him for raising any doubt he merits the 10 out of 10 he awarded himself for the incredible job he’s doing that’s the envy of the world.
Karl’s sin was to press Trump about the Health and Human Services inspector general’s report that surveyed 323 hospitals and found crippling shortages of tests (slightly short of “more than any other country in the world”) and basic supplies. I have more face masks in my medicine cabinet than some ERs. Trump insisted the IG, Christi Grimm, was a political hack expressing her opinion, despite serving four administrations since 1999. As for Karl, aka “cutie pie” and “wise guy” to Trump, he’s “a third-rate reporter” and a “disgrace”: “You will never make it.”
There is at least one of these putdowns per day. “Excuse me. Excuse me,” voice rising, offense taken, Trump interrupts. “Why can’t you be nice to me?” Although he doesn’t mean it. He can live without a friend but not without a foil. What he means is thanks for the opportunity, cutie pie.
Grimm will be lucky to keep her job. Trump’s declared open season on inspectors general. Within a week, he purged intel IG Michael Atkinson for forwarding a whistleblower complaint to Congress. And then Pentagon IG Glenn Fine, a 20-year veteran, the overseer of a $2.2 trillion relief fund. That was so obviously a way to clear the way for Trump to dip into the money, Gen. Jim Mattis emerged from seclusion to object.
Not even Walter Cronkite could stop Trump. How do you put “Quit blaming Obama. He left you with a pandemic guidebook and he couldn’t have developed a test for a virus that didn’t exist three years ago” in the form of a question? Or “stop with the hydroxychloroquine, you’re creating dangerous shortages before Dr. Fauci has proof patients won’t die from an unproven cure.”
Or “Jared, are you kidding? The Strategic National Stockpile is not yours to disperse to governors who express sufficient admiration for Ivanka’s daddy and hold open their beaches in homage.” Florida’s Ron DeSantis got 100 percent of his request; New Jersey a measly 5 percent.
It’s a minor piece of resistance, but former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, an MSNBC contributor, isn’t going to appear until the channel stops carrying the briefings live. He’s not asking for executives to black out Trump, just to black out his lies and his attacks on the press.
There is so much at these shows, their ratings rising along with our death count, that shouldn’t be seen: Trump grazing shoulders with aides, not wiping the shared microphone, his outrage at the recommendation he wear a mask, as if he’d been asked to don a skirt. His wistful references to those who urged us to ride out this pandemic like cowboys. In that reminiscence, he’s the cowboy.
You can hear Trump giving previews of a special three-hour episode of the Trump Show built around the flattening of the curve for which he will take the credit. Promos are already running on Fox. He will ignore that what flattened the curve was what the experts said would flatten the curve. He’ll brazenly re-assert that the cure was worse than the problem, the country didn’t need to be shut down at the cost of his perfect economy, that he, who amazed the medical community with his knowledge, was right. It was no worse than the flu, after all.
If we’re lucky, someone will ask him if he’s going to reopen the country, or if that’s up to the governors, and he’ll tell the wise guy that the unappreciative governors can’t tell him what to do. Any mention of the governors tends to undo him, so he’ll lose his train of thought and get off on his Facebook ranking and retell the one about wanting “to come way under the model,” the double-entendre about casualty projections that didn’t get enough laughs the first time. An alarmed Dr. Fauci will go to the mike, take a disinfectant wipe to it for emphasis, and say the country will reopen before its time over his dead body. And ours.
Trump’s act is getting old. Although he lies better than most people tell the truth, the show should be canceled now that he’s lying about matters of life and death. The president can’t stop himself, but to show appropriate respect for the office he occupies, we have to.