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Burned by coronavirus briefings, Trump sulks from a distance

President Donald Trump after the White House briefing

President Donald Trump after the White House briefing on Friday. Credit: Bloomberg / Polaris / Chris Kleponis

Grievance-ing in private

The waves of alarm, contempt and ridicule that followed President Donald Trump's toxic brainstorming about disinfectants and ultraviolet light as potential coronavirus treatments looks to have poisoned his perspective on the value of the White House crisis briefings.

No longer enthusing about winning big TV ratings, he sees the "lamestream media" getting "record ratings" after asking "nothing but hostile questions." Previously the White House has called MSNBC and CNN "shameful" for cutting away from the briefings, which doesn't sound consistent with his complaint that they were mining them for big ratings. No matter. Trump tweeted Saturday about the presentations: "Not worth the time & effort!"

And so the briefing room stayed empty Sunday, and there was no new word from the president about the pandemic that has claimed more than 55,000 U.S. lives. Instead, Trump railed through the day on Twitter against the news media — even Fox News — and about being unappreciated. "The people that know me and know the history of our Country say that I am the hardest working President in history," Trump wrote. "I don’t know about that, but I am a hard worker and have probably gotten more done in the first 3 1/2 years than any President in history. The Fake News hates it!"

What triggered the president, he made clear in follow-up tweets, was a New York Times story on Thursday depicting his workdays as the COVID-19 crisis consumes his presidency, which include obsessive TV watching for coverage on his performance and rolling into the Oval Office as late as noon.

His tweetstorm moved on to call for the revocation of "Noble Prizes" given to journalists "for their work on Russia, Russia, Russia, only to have been proven totally wrong." There are no "Noble" or Nobel Prizes for journalism — Trump tweet-watchers presumed he mixed them up with the Pulitzers. But hours later, he deleted those postings and tweeted that he used the word "Noble" deliberately because it means "having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals." For those who might be baffled by that explanation, he added plaintively, "Does sarcasm ever work?"

Back to the briefings: Is Trump really done with them? The White House schedule for Monday, released Sunday night, lists a task force briefing at 5 p.m. It doesn't say whether Trump will attend, but it never does. The Washington Post reported that Trump's advisers were considering cutting the number of briefings or having the president appear less often.

The Post compiled stats from the past three weeks of the sessions. It found that Trump attacked someone in one-third of his responses and offered false or misleading information in nearly 25% of his remarks. It also reported that he used 45 minutes to praise himself and his administration, but just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victims. Republicans are worried that negative public reaction will hurt them in November, and Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, told the Times that Trump needed to change his approach. “You got to have some hope to sell people,” Cole said. “But Trump usually sells anger, division and ‘we’re the victim.’ ”

Janison: Lingering in the air

Whether Trump is on a temporary or permanent hiatus from the briefings, they have left a lasting impression. Trump can't be bothered to explain himself, will not stop whining about the media and will not quit blaming government failure on the opposing party, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Eyes fixed in the mirror, he behaves as he did before the coronavirus pandemic.

Some viewers express the harsh if well-founded view that despite a deep crisis, the president spitballs like a foggy-headed quack. Nobody should be shocked about this from a president who over and over he has nattered fictitiously about wind turbines causing cancer.

To be fair, he didn't precisely announce Thursday that everyone should immediately ingest bleach or disinfectant or use a sun lamp on their insides. But it might have been a good idea if he'd told people, even afterward: "Don't try this at home." He left the common-sense warnings to others.

Stick with the medics

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who has tangled with Trump on the federal coronavirus response, said the briefings can be better if the medical experts stay front and center.

“I think having briefings to inform the public of what’s going on is important,” Hogan said on CBS' "Face the Nation." “And I think [Trump’s] coronavirus team has really been doing a good job, and there’s some really smart folks on there that are providing valuable information." But as for Trump, "some of the messaging has not been great,” he said.

Hogan also said that after Trump's remarks Thursday, a Maryland health department emergency hotline received hundreds of calls from residents asking about Trump's musings on injecting or ingesting disinfectants as a treatment for coronavirus.

“It’s hard to imagine that people thought that was serious, but people were actually thinking about this,” Hogan said. “People were thinking about: Is this something you could do to protect yourself?”

Birx: Don't relax too much

As some states are loosening shutdown restrictions, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx cautioned that social distancing will continue to be necessary through the summer months.

In Sunday morning political show appearances, the immunology and global health expert said current U.S. tracking models "give us great hope" that COVID-19 cases and deaths will be waning by the May 23-25 Memorial Day holiday weekend. But she said practices for avoiding community transmission of the virus must be maintained through the entire summer to help prevent any new potential outbreak of COVID-19.

"Social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases," Birx added, referencing Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer.

Birx also said the conversation needs to move on from Trump's disinfectant debacle, which she has tried to cast as just a situation in which the president was thinking out loud in conversation with his experts while a national TV audience happened to be watching. (Trump on Friday offered a different, implausible explanation — that he was being sarcastic with the media.)

“It bothers me that this is still in the news cycle, because I think we’re missing the bigger pieces of what we need to be doing as an American people to continue to protect one another,” Birx said.

Boom or gloom

Two Trump officials on the Sunday shows had sharply contrasting takes on the economic outlook.

“As we begin to reopen the economy in May and June, you’re going to see the economy really bounce back in July, August and September,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

"This is the biggest negative shock that our economy, I think, has ever seen. We're going to be looking at an unemployment rate that approaches rates that we saw during the Great Depression," said economic adviser Kevin Hassett.

Sorry, states? Some in GOP disagree

A number of Senate Republicans are publicly and privately expressing an openness toward funding for cash-strapped state and local governments, distancing themselves from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's suggestion that bankruptcy would be a better option, CNN reported.

"On issues like this, I think taking a hard line is kind of a wrong way to go about it," said Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana. A slew of state bankruptcies "would have a cascading effect and add even more uncertainty," Braun said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican whose state has been hit hard by the pandemic, has introduced a bill with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that would provide $500 billion for state and local governments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced confidence that states and localities will get their aid in the next coronavirus relief package. Asked about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's complaint that the funding was left out of the bill passed last week, Pelosi said, “Just calm down. We will have state and local [aid], and we will have it in a very significant way. It's no use going on to what might have been.” For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez and Scott Eidler.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by David M. Schwartz. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The coronavirus pandemic has revived a push by congressional Democrats and voting rights groups to expand mail-in voting ahead of November’s general election. The proposal, which calls for almost $2 billion in federal election funding, has faced pushback from Trump and Republicans. See Figueroa's story for Newsday.
  • To accommodate Trump's decision to deliver an in-person commencement speech at West Point in mid-June, about 1,000 cadets will be summoned back to campus weeks in advance, The New York Times reported. If they test negative for coronavirus, they will be isolated for 14 days.
  • Trump late Sunday tweeted a denial of reports in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and elsewhere that White House officials were discussing the dismissal of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. "Alex is doing an excellent job!" the president's tweet said.
  • Former Trump Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the ouster last week of a top vaccine expert by HHS, Dr. Rick Bright, likely would add delay to efforts to roll out a coronavirus vaccine. Bright charges he was ousted for resisting Trump's promotion of two antimalarial drugs to treat the disease. Gottlieb spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation."
  • Sunday was first lady Melania Trump's 50th birthday. Apart from a "Happy Birthday" tweet from her husband, there was no comment from the White House on how they marked the occasion.
  • When a CNN anchor jokingly ran names by Dr. Anthony Fauci several week ago on who should play him on "Saturday Night Live," the government's top infectious diseases official chose "Brad Pitt, of course." And so that happened on the latest "Saturday Night Live at Home," with Pitt, as Fauci, fact-checking Trump.

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