Trump coronavirus briefings become mini election rallies

But centrestage is reserved for Mr Trump and with a little over seven months to election day, the virus is not the only battle on the Republican's mind.
But centrestage is reserved for Mr Trump and with a little over seven months to election day, the virus is not the only battle on the Republican's mind.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Forced by the coronavirus pandemic to suspend re-election rallies, United States President Donald Trump has converted daily White House briefings on the crisis into mini campaign speeches, dominating the airwaves while his main rival sits quarantined in his basement.

In a nation paralysed by fear of the rampaging virus, the White House briefing room podium is the go-to place for primetime television viewers to catch their government's latest response.

At least that's the idea.

But centrestage is reserved for Mr Trump, and with a little over seven months to election day, the virus is not the only battle on the Republican's mind.

Experts, like renowned infectious diseases doctor Anthony Fauci, line up behind the President. The unquestioned star, though, is their showman-like boss.

Held at around 5.30pm or 6pm in Washington, the briefings are hardly brief, clocking in at 90 minutes or more.

First come the aides, quietly standing around an empty space at the lectern. Then, with the timing honed during a long reality television career, in strides Mr Trump.

He reads dutifully from a lengthy prepared statement giving updates about what the government is doing. Next he introduces his subordinates, asking them one by one to say a few words.

Then with an "any questions?", the real show begins.

In his unique style, Mr Trump riffs on everything from foreign policy to his personal achievements, the "dishonest" media, and his own at times off-the-cuff medical opinions.

The vibe is instantly recognisable to anyone who has watched the now mothballed Make America Great Again rallies, just minus the cheering.

 
 

By the end, journalists in the room - their numbers slashed to respect social distancing, and dwindling further due to coronavirus quarantines - are running out of questions. Mr Trump, though, can barely tear himself away from the cameras.

"I've gotten to like this room," he said.

TRAPPED IN THE BASEMENT

The briefings secure big live audiences. More than eight million people watch on average, rising at times above 12 million.

The Trump show, as always, is a hit.

Contrast that to the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The former vice-president under Mr Barack Obama was riding high just a few weeks ago with stunning defeats of his final primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders.

Then, just as he was set to pivot his campaign to taking on Mr Trump, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Like millions of other Americans, the 77-year-old Mr Biden ended up trapped in his home.

This week, he has finally sought to bust out of isolation with a studio set up in his book-lined basement. But technical glitches and a campaign machine seemingly unable to shift gears quickly give Mr Biden's early efforts a surprisingly amateur look.

Hosting a virtual happy hour exchange with supporters by Zoom video link on Wednesday evening (March 25), Mr Biden chatted fluently about foreign policy, the coronavirus and much else.

Yet only about 2,000 people were watching.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, was in full flow in the White House briefing room.

JOURNALISM OR PROPAGANDA?

Because Mr Trump goes off topic so often and makes medical claims that his experts then have to walk back, some US media organisations are arguing for scaling down the live coverage.

"If he keeps lying like he has been every day on stuff this important, all of us should stop broadcasting it," Ms Rachel Maddow, an energetic Mr Trump critic who hosts on the MSNBC network, said last week.

The New York Times editorial board said it was "time to put an end" to the daily briefings.

 
 

But White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the media, which had pushed for "press conferences all day, every day" was reneging on its duty.

"Now they have them... many chose not to cover them. Odd response when you consider it is literally their job to report vital news of the day," she tweeted on Thursday.

Veteran ABC news interviewer Ted Koppel also said the media needs to rethink traditional coverage of such an untraditional president.

"Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context," he wrote to the Times.

"I recognise that presidential utterances occupy a unique category. Within that category, however, President Trump has created a special compartment all his own."

Mr Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary under Mr George W Bush, a Republican, says leftwing journalists are simply trying to isolate Mr Trump from the people.

"Trump's job approval hits the highest level of his presidency," he tweeted. "It's no coincidence that many resistance reporters want to take his coronavirus briefings off the air."