Inside the White House's attempt to message its way out of the coronavirus crisis

·5 min read

WASHINGTON — The White House's attempts to message its way out of the coronavirus crisis with a ramped-up public safety campaign this month have run into a pair of internal roadblocks: a lack of dramatic, concrete policy actions to match the communications push and a president who often struggles to follow the same talking-point playbook as his team.

The administration is making a concerted local media push, with more than 200 interviews in current and emerging hot spots urging Americans to wear masks and avoid large gatherings, said a senior administration official. Behind the scenes, Dr. Deborah Birx has been pushing state and local governments to issue mask mandates and close bars, and a small task force has been formed inside the White House primarily focused on public messaging, the official said.

But there is currently no talk of a nationwide mask mandate, a call to resume shelter-in-place orders or a retreat on President Donald Trump's push for schools to reopen — moves many health experts have called for — the official said.

And the administration's messaging efforts often continue to be undercut by Trump and his allies.

The president's tone on masks shifted somewhat this month at the urging of advisers as he began advocating their use, even donning one himself in public on occasion, and urging social distancing during a trip to the hard-hit state of Florida on Friday.

But he has also been seen repeatedly without one in recent days, promoting a video this week of a controversial doctor who incorrectly claimed masks and other social distancing measures weren’t necessary because there was a cure for the virus.

Hours before Trump shared the video Monday night, Birx, head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, was in Tennessee urging the state to mandate masks, close bars and limit indoor dining. Birx also made a plea for Trump’s supporters to wear masks.

“I hope if they’re a Donald Trump supporter and live in rural Tennessee and they heard him say masks are important, I hope they’re listening to that,” Birx said. Wearing masks is "the power that we have in our hands" to combat the spread, she added.

At least one governor and Trump supporter was unmoved: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he wouldn’t be closing bars or mandating masks statewide, despite Birx’s calls to do so. Trump ally Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday just before traveling with Trump on Air Force One, even suggested he may have gotten infected by wearing a mask.

During Tuesday’s weekly conference call with the nation’s governors this week, Birx again emphasized the importance of mask mandates in helping stem the spread of the coronavirus, according to a source on the call. Birx has also spoken to mayors in cities on the verge of becoming the next pandemic hot spots, urging them to put mask mandates in place if their state isn’t issuing an order.

Top Trump aides — like senior advisers Jared Kushner, chief of staff Mark Meadows and campaign manager Bill Stepien — have urged the president to echo the public health messaging coming from his doctors, the official said.

Senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month that she believes Trump’s declining poll numbers are related to his absence from the response — which has drawn low marks in recent surveys — and pushed for him to resume regular coronavirus briefings, which have been shorter and generally more scripted than in the past.

“There is an understanding within the White House that we have got to get our arms around this, given the 90-day stretch we are heading into,” said the official, referring to the election home stretch. The official added: “We weren’t expecting to see this kind of spike at this time."

But infighting in the White House continues to spill into public. After Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro made a pitch on Fox Newson Wednesday for the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, the administration's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said studies of the drug have shown "consistently" that it is "not effective" in treating the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Among the 14 states identified by the White House as hot spots, with more than 10 percent of tests coming back positive, officials see another 14 at risk of becoming the next Florida or Arizona, according to an internal report first reported by the New York Times. Those states with positivity rates of 5 to 10 percent include a number of battleground states, such as Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

At a hearing Friday with the administration's top health officials, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said the report highlighted the "disconnect there seemed to be between what the White House is saying publicly and what they are sending out to the states privately."

The separate White House task force focused on public messaging, chaired by Birx, meets for 30 minutes each day. It includes Kushner, Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff Marc Short and staffers from the communications office.

But after coming under fire for his retweet of a video that was eventually banned from major social media platforms such as Twitter, the president himself spent part of the week decidedly off-message, praising the doctor who starred in the clip — and highlighting the scale of the White House's communications challenge heading into the campaign home stretch.

“I can tell you this, she was on air along with many other doctors,” he told reporters Tuesday. “They were big fans of hydroxychloroquine, and I thought she was very impressive."

CORRECTION (Aug. 1, 2020, 1:13 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of states identified as coronavirus hot spots in an internal White House report. It indicated that 14, not 13, states had test-positivity rates above 10 percent at the time.