A tactful response from a pragmatic official, who clearly understands that influence with the president depends on his sense of one’s loyalty. On the merits, though, I don’t understand Birx’s reasoning. She says that the focus on Trump’s ad-libbing about “cleaning” the body internally are distracting the public from more important information about COVID-19. What information, though? When was the last time a daily coronavirus briefing produced vital information from anyone at the podium? Watch, then read on.
“It bothers me that this is still in the news cycle,” Dr. Deborah Birx says about Pres. Trump’s disinfectant remarks. “I worry that we don’t get the information to the American people that they need when we continue to bring up something that was from Thursday night" #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/eu9n1jCVkO
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) April 26, 2020
When the leader of the free world starts riffing on national television about potential treatment applications of disinfectant, that’s capital-N News. The things he says have real-world consequences, after all:
But if the claim is that the media is drowning out the signal from the briefings by boosting the volume on the noise, then I ask again: What’s the signal, supposedly? What practical advice are Americans getting at 5 p.m. every day? Trump has been criticized endlessly for exploiting the briefings to grandstand about his grievance du jour but it’s rarely mentioned that Fauci, Birx, and the rest of the daily speakers seldom have much of importance to say beyond updating the country that the general trend lately is good or bad. Even when Birx is given an opportunity to comment on a pressing policy development, like Georgia’s decision to reopen early, she tends to duck. In the clip above she cites the DHS data on how sunlight affects the virus as important, but the average person already understands that being outdoors is safer than being indoors. Every stay-at-home order in the country of which I’m aware deems going for walks to get some exercise an “essential activity” provided that social distancing is maintained.
All of that is a long way of saying that not only have Trump’s appearances at the briefings outlived their usefulness, the briefings themselves have — at least as a daily matter. They should be held once a week, occasionally more often if there’s something truly newsy to report, to announce new treatments or discuss evidence of how people can reduce their chances of developing a severe case through lifestyle choices. But there’s no need to have Fauci and Birx trudge out there every day to do their eight-thousandth iteration of “Testing is getting better but we’re not where we need to be.” They can do that in cable-news interviews, which are and doubtless will remain plentiful.
Coincidentally, the White House is thinking along the same lines:
NEW: @PressSec Kayleigh McEnany says there will be no briefing today, despite WH guidance released last night. 4p event w/ retail execs will open to pool. There will be some briefings later in the week, she said, but they "might have a new look to them, a new focus to them."
— Betsy Klein (@betsy_klein) April 27, 2020
Maybe they’ve also come to the conclusion that the briefings aren’t useful anymore, but given how this White House operates, I’d bet it’s more about spite. If the 5 p.m. show is no longer a show about Trump then the show mustn’t go on at all.
Per Axios, it may be replaced by a different show, one about the economic recovery:
The Coronavirus Task Force — and the doctors who’ve become household names, Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci — “will continue but take a back seat to the forward-looking, ‘what’s next’ message,” a White House official told Axios…
What we’re hearing: “Expect to see a pivot from the White House in the days ahead, focusing on the economy and a more hopeful, forward-looking message,” one of these officials said.
Trump will host businesses who’ve been harmed by the coronavirus, and he’ll highlight the governors who are reopening their economies in line with the Trump administration’s guidelines.
There won’t be a lot of useful information at these either unless they turn into a discussion of “best practices” by participants brainstorming on how to remain operational while observing social distancing rules. What they’ll probably be is just a series of de facto campaign commercials with business owners talking about how their customers are excited to be back, and so on. At least that’s good politics for the White House, which the daily virus briefings have not been.
One last point. Birx is right that the media likes to chase shiny objects like Trump’s disinfectant comments, especially when they involve the president embarrassing himself, but let me gently remind her that that’s as much of a supply problem as it is a demand problem. Her boss can’t get out of his own way. If he doesn’t derail the daily coronavirus message on live TV at 5 p.m., he’ll do it on Twitter:
Exit question: If I’m wrong that the daily briefings aren’t useful, what sort of utility are people getting out of them? Would it be useful for Birx or Fauci to use them as a way to publicly call out states that have reopened sooner than the federal guidelines would indicate? That would place each of them in a more political role, with which neither seems comfortable.