Trump team’s brewing debate: How to message a raging health emergency

Trump has told advisers and allies he expects a vaccine for the novel coronavirus to arrive this fall, a timeline for which there is no certainty, and he wants aides to offer both facts and a message of optimism to the public, a senior administration official said.

Since the federal government’s Covid-19 task force discontinued its daily briefings in May, Pence has taken on most of the administration’s coronavirus messaging responsibilities — through interviews with local news outlets, outreach to religious groups and engagement with key constituencies. Several of his trips outside Washington in the past two months have featured informal updates on state reopenings, disease transmission and the status of a vaccine.

Now, Trump aides are trying to decide whether to put the national spotlight back on what they have spent months arguing is a series of state and local issues — that had previously been relegated to the vice president’s office.

“Cutting back on the briefings left a void that was filled by the media and the president’s political opponents in order to mislead people, and it resulted on the administration being put on the defensive,” a second senior administration official said.

Core to their conundrum is the president himself. Trump loves the spotlight, and his briefings during the heart of the crisis turned into protracted events that sometimes stretched for two hours — with the president straying off message and generating negative headlines.

Those sessions have “no end goal and just focus on the political issue of the day,” said another senior administration official. “A large group of advisers in the White House think it would be more effective to do more regionally focused press than national briefings.”

The coronavirus void at the White House — after a historic stretch of briefings by the president himself — is highlighting the holes in Trump’s latest approach as he focuses on other matters while blaming the media for focusing on the coronavirus.

Trump’s handling of the virus risks damaging his standing even further, making him look out of touch with even his own supporters in red states now struggling with the virus resurgence.

“You can’t spin a pandemic,” said David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama. “I mean, everyone is living with it. The reality of it is too obvious.

“The best thing to do in a crisis — any crisis — if you are president is to be as forthcoming as possible and to allow the professionals who are experts to take the lead,” Axelrod said. “During the H1N1 virus back in 2009, I think every briefing, but one, was held at the CDC. They were the lead agency. They had the best info.”

The CDC has held a three briefings since mid-March — though the agency’s director recently promised to reinstate more regular briefings. The latest briefing by the White House coronavirus task force took place Friday at the Department of Health and Human Services. Pence also visited the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps headquarters in Rockville, Md., on Tuesday to offer remarks and answer reporters’ questions.

“At the request of President Trump, Vice President Pence is pleased to provide the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings to the American people,” Pence spokesman Devin O’Malley said.

Some White House officials, such as Meadows, want Dr. Deborah Birx, a global infectious diseases expert on the White House task force, to become the face of the coronavirus response and make appearances on local media in hard-hit areas like Texas, Arizona and Florida. Birx joined Pence on his trip last Sunday to Texas, where they met with Gov. Greg Abbott and pleaded with the public to wear protective masks. She is expected to travel to Arizona with Pence on Wednesday as that state struggles with an overwhelming surge in coronavirus cases.

The White House is also working on a public service announcement on Covid-19 that features Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Birx and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

The government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is viewed by some White House aides as an expert who promotes too much fear-mongering, even though he’s an icon in public health circles and generally seen as trusted by the public in surveys.

Before a Senate panel on Tuesday, Fauci warned the U.S. could see an explosion of daily cases if the coronavirus continues to spread. The rise in cases in the South and the West “puts the entire country at risk,” he added.

“We are now having 40-plus-thousand new cases a day,”Fauci said. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around. And so, I am very concerned.”

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has become a line of political attack for Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden devoted the majority of a speech in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday to criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the virus and outlining the steps he would take if he is elected in November.

“Month after month, as other leaders took the necessary steps to get the virus under control, Donald Trump failed us,” Biden said. He argued the White House should offer weekly updates on vaccine distribution and production and that Trump should send a clear signal on wearing masks.

Public health experts say the administration’s messaging on the virus, dating to January, has been contradictory and confusing: from Trump assuring Americans the virus would be gone by April to the administration’s advice on wearing masks to Trump’s own promotion of hydroxychloroquine, a drug proven for treatment of Covid-19. They say all of that has contributed to the U.S. under-performance compared with Europe and other advanced economies.

“The briefings we saw previously were basically propaganda exercises,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor in epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine. “They provided a bare minimum to the public on how to protect themselves, and they were often a vehicle for misinformation and disinformation.”

“If we have briefings, they need to be science-based. They need to be fact-based,” Gonsalves added. “We are not asking that much out of this administration.”