President Donald Trump's announcement Monday that he would resurrect the White House coronavirus task force briefings is the culmination of weeks of debate among his aides about how best to turn around — or explain away — his administration's failed response to the pandemic.
As the number of infected Americans surges and as Trump's coronavirus approval ratings plummet, the president is pledging to "get involved" in the daily messaging campaign in a more direct way by returning to the podium where he headlined controversial news conferences in March and April.
The move to revive the briefings, which were at times contentious, meandering and at odds with public health guidance, comes as Trump has struggled to turn the country's attention away from the surging pandemic and accompanying economic devastation just months before voters head to the polls.
"I think it's a great way to get information out to the public as to where we are with the vaccines, with the therapeutics, and, generally speaking, where we are," Trump told reporters Monday. "I'll do it at 5 o'clock, like we were doing. We had a good slot. And a lot of people were watching."
Trump's focus on vaccines, therapeutics and television ratings offers an indication that the briefings will continue to be a platform for the president to put a positive spin on the pandemic even as it spirals out of control. Trump's previous turn at the podium included several attempts to tout untested treatments for coronavirus, ranging from hydroxychloroquine to disinfectant and light.
He regularly got into tiffs with reporters who pointed out shortcomings in his administration's response — once storming out of the Rose Garden after being challenged by two journalists.
While some Republicans criticized the briefings in March and April as unfocused and unhelpful, some welcomed the news Monday that the president would be publicly returning his attention to the pandemic that now sits atop the list of issues most pressing to voters. Trump's efforts to ignore and downplay the virus in recent weeks have irked Republican lawmakers and governors — some of whom have publicly criticized him for not doing more to lead the country through crisis.
Even some of Trump's aides publicly called on him to begin playing a more central role in the national response to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 3.8 million Americans, killing more than 138,000. Trump, who declared himself a "wartime president" during a White House briefing in March, tried to move on rhetorically from the crisis by declaring a "transition to greatness" in May and drastically reducing his mentions of the coronavirus even as it spread at a record pace in recent weeks.
After mentioning the virus more than 812 times in March and April, Trump did so only 278 times in May and June, according to Factba.se, a data analytics firm that tracks the president's comments and tweets.
"I just think the people want to hear from the president of the United States," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Friday. She told Fox News earlier Friday that some of her White House colleagues did not want Trump to return to the briefing room — confirming publicly the kind of internal dissension previous administrations would have tried to keep out of the public domain.
Vice President Mike Pence has advocated for briefings to return for several weeks, believing they were helpful to the administration and shared information, according to two administration officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Some administration officials were opposed to the briefings and others, including communications director Alyssa Farah and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, have called for briefings to take place at the Health and Human Services Department or elsewhere outside the White House briefing room — with health experts and a health-focused press corps, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Among the allies urging Trump to do more about coronavirus is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who golfed with him on Saturday and Sunday. Graham said the president was going to be "more involved" on the coronavirus, and he counseled him to hold events in the Cabinet Room or Roosevelt Room with business leaders, or others, while taking a few questions at the end.
"Arguing with a reporter for 30 minutes doesn't help," Graham said, adding that the old format was at times counterproductive.
The president, Graham said, wants to talk about a potential vaccine and some improvements with personal protective equipment, along with what the country is doing about testing and his animus toward China.
"I think you're going to see him very focused on the coronavirus," Graham said. "He's very pissed at China."
Several White House officials said the administration had to talk more about coronavirus because Trump's poll numbers have fallen significantly in recent weeks.
There has been a net drop of 28 points in his approval margin on the coronavirus since March, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Currently, 38% approve of Trump's handling of the pandemic, and 60% disapprove. Trump trails his Democratic rival Joe Biden 55% to 40% among registered voters in the poll, the latest to show a double-digit gap.
"Do you think what we're doing right now is working?" one official said, when asked if the briefings would improve the president's standing.
Officials are hoping to prep the president for shorter briefings.
Many of the briefings are likely to feature just the president — a departure from previous events where public health officials also appeared, administration officials said.
"The plan is for them to be the president, and to keep them short and tight," a senior administration official said, adding that Trump could appear multiple times per week.
After the president's last set of briefings, advisers pleaded with him to stop or slash the lengthy events, citing his plummeting poll numbers. Among them: Ronna McDaniel, Jared Kushner and former campaign manager Brad Parscale. After his final briefing where he suggested that disinfectant could be inserted into the body to kill the virus, he finally relented.
But in recent days, some of his political advisers have argued that he has to focus more on the coronavirus, with record high caseloads reported almost daily. The president has finally become convinced, advisers said, to talk more about the crisis.
There was relief among the president's advisers when he agreed to wear a mask for a visit this month to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and advisers quickly praised him and posted images publicly on their social media feeds.
Trump, who used previous briefings to contradict health experts and downplay the importance of wearing masks, sought to change course Monday — tweeting a picture of himself with his face covered.
Calling himself "your favorite President," Trump wrote "many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can't socially distance."
Trump's critics have argued that the president has already proven he cannot be trusted to responsibly command the country's attention during the crisis. Some have pushed for television networks not to air the briefings, which have at times lasted for up to two hours and veered into a vast potpourri of subjects unrelated to the pandemic.
"We've watched this exact scene from Donald Trump's ongoing horror movie before when he hijacked the briefings and spread dangerous misinformation, including advising Americans who get COVID-19 to inject themselves with disinfectant — drowning out the same public health experts who he's now outright attacking," Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said in a statement.
Trump's campaign has tried to draw a contrast between the president's front-and-center approach and Biden's more low-key campaign, which has attempted to follow health guidelines by avoiding unnecessary gatherings.
"Americans can see that President Trump has been out front and leading the country through the coronavirus crisis," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. "That's in marked contrast to Joe Biden, who sits in his basement and lobs ineffective partisan hand grenades with the sole purpose of turning a health crisis into a political weapon."
Trump himself has vacillated over the usefulness of the briefings, first defending them and pointing to strong ratings before lamenting over his coverage in the media.
"The Wall Street Journal always 'forgets' to mention that the ratings for the White House Press Briefings are "through the roof" (Monday Night Football, Bachelor Finale, according to @nytimes) & is only way for me to escape the Fake News & get my views across," Trump tweeted on April 9 after the Wall Street Journal editorial board described the conferences as "wasted" time.
Just over two weeks later, shortly after Trump created a firestorm with his comments about injecting disinfectant, he expressed a different view about the briefings.
"What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately," Trump tweeted on April 25. "They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News. Not worth the time & effort!"
In the weeks since he ended the daily briefings, Trump has held large rallies in coronavirus hot spots, commuted the sentence of political ally Roger Stone, defended Confederate generals and flags, pledged to sign executive orders on health care and immigration, threatened to cut funding for schools that don't hold in person classes this fall and held a Bible in front of a church after federal agents cleared a path by forcefully removing peaceful protests.
Scott Reed, a veteran Republican operative and chief strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said a return to the coronavirus briefings could be an opportunity for Trump's administration to "stop running down unimportant rabbit trails."
“The voters care about a solution to the virus,” he said in an email. “Good move that the President is restarting the briefings — a real chance to deliver a sharp message, repeat it over and over, and exit stage right for the medical pros.”
But Sarah Matthews, a White House spokeswoman, said that in addition to speaking “directly to the American people” about the federal coronavirus response, Trump would use the daily briefings to discuss “other pertinent issues.”