In the days after Donald Trump revealed he was infected with coronavirus, the president’s aides have given out misleading information, contradicted each other and refused to answer questions about an infection timeline. Trump’s doctor even admitted he had misled Americans in an attempt to reflect an “upbeat attitude.”
It was all for Trump.
Trump, even while stricken with Covid-19, has acted as his own communications chief, crafting a message for the White House to first downplay his illness and then to project himself as a resilient patient who easily beat the virus — though his own doctors say he hasn’t yet.
He pushed for a drive-by through throngs of supporters outside the hospital, casting aside concerns that he was putting others in the car at risk. Later, he crafted a cinematic moment upon his return to the White House, tearing off his mask to salute the cameras after ascending the steps to his residence, leaving newly hired communications aides to answer questions about why he was flouting basic pandemic protocols.
For once, Trump’s supporters and critics agreed. In interviews, seven people who have worked for Trump described the situation as “disastrous” and “confusing” — another “lost opportunity.” Trump’s insistence at guiding the process had backfired, they agreed, leading to the exact opposite of what he wanted: to convey a sense of calm and control.
“All of this nonsense derives from Trump — directly,” said a former White House communications staffer. “The thing is these sorts of crises are political opportunities if you handle them right. They’ve handled the public relations around this about as poorly as can be done. So afraid of looking weak. So afraid of looking like there is a problem. … They can’t think past today’s news cycle.”
The strategy behind the latest crisis is no different than countless others that came before it in the last four years — everything from an investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to Trump’s impeachment over his attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating the son of his political rival, Joe Biden. Trump controls the message, unveils it abruptly in tweets or spontaneous comments. His staffers then work backwards to bend that message into a communications strategy.
“Trump is running things like it’s a small family business where you have your hand in everything,” said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant who worked in the Reagan White House. “It’s very clear that everything that is happening is a direct reflection of his personality.”
Trump’s push to show himself as invincible comes four weeks before he is up for reelection. The president is trailing in the polls against Democrat Joe Biden, with his standing damaged by criticism over an uneven response to the global pandemic, a decimated economy and his treatment of nationwide protests against police brutality
Since Trump contracted coronavirus, his orbit has sought to turn the illness into a sign of his own strength, even declaring his personal experience with the virus makes him better equipped than Biden to lead. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” Trump tweeted. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”
“It seems like all of the messaging has been politically motivated, and I would prefer they consider seizing the presidential moment and balance campaigning with his leadership responsibility in this public health crisis,” said a former senior administration official. “There’s more political advantage in handling this as president than looking for the short-term political rhetoric.”
Trump is not the first president to face an illness while in office. And he’s far from the first president to hide health issues: Franklin Roosevelt covered up his wheelchair use; Dwight Eisenhower hid details of a heart attack; Ronald Reagan downplayed the severity of his injuries after he was shot.
But other times, White House staff has been more forthcoming. In 1985, after colon surgery, Reagan’s doctor announced he had cancer, much to the irritation of the president’s wife, Denzenhall said. In 1997, after knee surgery, President Bill Clinton’s doctors held a briefing with few restrictions, recalled former White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
“Previous presidents have tried to keep some semblance of credibility even when they have tried to bend the truth in a favorable direction,” McCurry said. “Spin is not the same as lying.”
The White House and Trump campaign have repeatedly blamed the media for misinterpreting and exaggerating the discrepancies in information about Trump’s health.
“This is a very fast-moving, very difficult position,” said a Republican close to Trump. “There’s no playbook. Good people are trying to the best of their abilities.”
In recent administrations, the White House communications department would try to craft a messaging plan, get everyone on board, and then ensure staffers stayed within the talking points.
While it didn’t always work, the Trump White House has struggled to present a consistently united front. Offices sometimes seem unaware of the latest change in messaging strategy. Trump regularly overrules and disagrees with his own officials in public. He fires staffers, announces policy changes and airs grievances with no notice, leaving aides to play catch-up as he veers from controversy to controversy, often of his own making.
“They’re all in constant fear of Trump and they just care about pleasing him and common sense goes out the window, including telling the truth,” said a veteran Republican strategist. “At the end of the day, everyone around Trump gets hurt, except the family. … Everyone else is like Kleenex, totally disposable.”
Trump has had seven communications directors and four press secretaries in his four years. Each has been marginalized at key moments, as Trump always considers himself his own best spokesman. He has even said sometimes that his own spokespeople cannot be trusted to deliver accurate information. Before he got sick, he praised his response to coronavirus, except for his “public relations,” saying “my people got out-played.”
“The president has always been his own communications director and press secretary,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary for President Barack Obama. “That has both sown confusion and projected the opposite of what they wanted to project, the opposite of being in control.”
In the spring, new White House chief of staff Mark Meadows tried to bolster the White House press office, bringing in a new communications director, press secretary and many new staffers. But the result has been largely the same.
“He’s lost confidence in his communications shop and feels compelled to do it all alone,” said a former Trump aide. “Everyone is waiting on him to see what to do.”
Trump announced early Friday morning on Twitter that he had tested positive after spending the week at rallies and fundraisers in Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and debating Biden in Ohio. Hours later, he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after receiving supplemental oxygen for drops in his blood oxygen levels.
Yet at a briefing the next day, Sean Conley, the president’s physician, indicated Trump was “doing very well” and didn’t disclose the president’s oxygen situation. Minutes later, though, Meadows hinted something was amiss, anonymously telling reporters outside the hospital that Trump’s last 24 hours had “very concerning” moments and predicting “the next 48 hours “would be “critical” in how the virus unfolded.
“My hunch is that Meadows was trying to create like a hero complex where the president actually recovers swiftly and it was actually really really bad,” said a former White House official.
At two subsequent briefings, Conley conceded the president was not “out of the woods yet,” but refused to release information about several issues, including lung scans, citing privacy laws and the fact that he didn’t want to dwell on the past.
“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, over his course of illness, has had,” Conley said. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction.”
White House officials also declined to release information about how many aides have been infected and when Trump last tested negative — a key indicator of when he might have first become infected and how strict his testing regimen has been.
Trump left Walter Reed for the White House Monday evening. TV cameras watched as Marine One flew him home. He then walked up the stairs to the White House balcony, where he removed his mask and stood for photos. A video of his return was almost immediately released — a sign of the president once again choreographing his presidency at every turn.
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.
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