But they quickly descended into Trumpian theater. Useful information from the doctors became mixed in with long rants from Trump on peripheral issues. The relationship between Trump and the task force members themselves, especially Fauci, who became a media hero, gradually started to dominate the sessions, as if Trump couldn’t help but turn the crisis into a reality show about himself and his staff and his peculiar obsessions of the moment.
This week, especially Monday’s event, the briefings reached the zenith of showcasing unusual behavior, peripheral issues and petty intrigue. On Monday, Trump played a propaganda video, angrily attacked reporters sitting a few feet away, declared himself to have “total authority,” and pressed officials — some more reluctantly (Fauci) than others (Mike Pence) — to stand before the cameras and deliver obsequious praise while he hovered nearby.
The briefings have sent Trump’s political opponents, particularly Joe Biden, who continues to be quarantined at home in Delaware, scrambling for ways to gain attention. And they have created a crisis in the news media, as networks and online publications struggle with how to cover them and whether it’s appropriate to play the briefings, which are larded with erroneous information and campaign-like speechifying, live.
Watching these events on television doesn’t capture how surreal they really are, so on Monday and Wednesday, I ventured to the White House to see them up close.
It sometimes takes 20-30 minutes to drive the two miles from where I live in Washington to the White House in the late afternoon, but on Monday it took about five. It was the first time I’d been outside my home for a reporting assignment since covering Super Tuesday in California in early March, and it was jarring to stand so close to another human being who wasn’t a member of my quarantine family or the clerk at the local deli, liquor store, and 7-Eleven, three of the only places I’ve been for the past few weeks.
I leaned forward as if I were receiving Communion and she reached out and swiped the soft pad of an electronic thermometer across my forehead. It made a satisfying beep.
“What’s my temperature?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, we’re not allowed to say.”
There was no line of reporters to enter the White House grounds, as there often is on a day when Trump holds a news conference. Pebble Beach, the row of TV standup locations along the driveway to the West Wing, was eerily quiet. A White House staffer wielding another thermometer greeted me and other reporters as we arrived outside the door to the briefing room.
“How have you been feeling?” she asked. It took me a moment to realize she was asking whether I had any symptoms and not offering a quick therapy session. I passed the second test and another staffer gave me a sticker with the date on it to wear as verification.
The briefing room and the warren of office spaces behind and below it are famously cramped, and reporters who show up there every day to cover this story are clearly at a higher risk for exposure than their colleagues who work safely from home. Recently a photojournalist for one of the networks had shown potential Covid-19 symptoms, so one day last week every reporter who came to the White House received a Coronavirus test. Since tests are still hard to come by in the Washington area, several White House reporters not on the beat that day told me they were disappointed they weren’t among the test-takers.
If you’ve been cooped up at home for weeks, going into a semi-normal working environment is disorienting. Most reporters are still not wearing masks, and it was surprising how casually — and closely — people mingled. As it almost always is, the briefing was delayed and I retreated outside to wait. When an old friend joined me, I awkwardly told him he was standing too close.
There’s an important journalistic debate raging about whether these briefings should be shown live by cable networks and online platforms and whether reporters should attend them at all. As the sessions have become more propagandistic and an outlet for misinformation, the argument, at least for TV networks, for abstaining from live coverage has become stronger. But it would be absurd to boycott the briefings. Before these daily events, the White House briefing room was essentially shuttered. Now there’s daily access to the president and his top aides that’s enormously revealing.
That’s not to say that Trump doesn’t exploit his ability to command the nation’s attention. Of course he does, as Monday’s event made clear.
There are only 14 reporters allowed in the briefing room. They sit in a scattered pattern among the seven rows — not 6 feet apart as recommended, but also not on top of each other as they normally would be seated.
On most days, members of the task force, like Fauci and Birx, are forced to wait silently before the cameras until Trump and Pence appear. When Trump emerged from behind a sliding blue door, he stood in front of the lectern, scanned the room, which was silent, and said, “Thank you very much, everyone.” It was unclear whom he was thanking or what he was thanking them for, unless he wanted viewers at home to believe he had been greeted with applause.
Figuring out what to ask Trump is complicated. There are a few general categories. There are the news-of-the-day questions that tend to dominate briefings and daily White House coverage.
There are broader, more philosophical questions that might elicit more interesting responses but also risk being a waste of time. “My highly unprofessional instinct in those situations is to ask a question from left field that will get him talking, with the purpose of getting access to another part of his ‘mind,’” one nonreporter advised me. “Not a policy question, but something like: Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be president during this horror? Do you share the fear that many Americans feel about their vulnerability? What haunts you the most? Do you think there are emergencies in the history of our country when politics has to take a back seat, and is this one of them?”