Donald Trump’s “new” tones are perpetually faltering.
After a week in which the president was more willing to stick to a script, to temporarily eschew some of his more fact-challenged medical statements and to keep many of answers to reporters’ questions uncharacteristically succinct, Trump’s more typical behavior is starting to show through.
In the last day, he again chided governors who were slowing economic reopenings amid a nationwide coronavirus surge, and he returned to promoting flawed information about hydroxychloroquine, MAGAworld’s preferred Covid-19 drug, even as top public health officials debate its efficacy. Tuesday night, Trump characteristically doubled down, defending his decision to trumpet misleading claims from a doctor who has also alleged alien DNA is used in medical treatments and vaccines are disseminated to prevent people from being religious.
“I thought she was very impressive,” Trump said. “She said that she's had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients. I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her."
The swinging pendulum of Trump’s tone represents the latest instance of Trump pulling back on his frequent tactics — pushing evidence-deficient claims, interweaving political attacks with policy announcements — only to revert within days. It’s a trend that spans back to his campaign days, but it has been particularly apparent in recent months as the pandemic and nationwide protests have rocked the country.
In March, after downplaying the virus for weeks, the president suddenly adopted a more somber tone, only to days later predict a grand reopening by Easter. Later, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the president first said he acknowledged the pain felt by Americans over the death, but then days later called for the “domination” of people protesting police violence.
While Trump’s critics inevitably roll their eyes each time Trump reverts to form, his backers say that as long as he avoids the more egregious fumbles — like retweeting a video of a supporter yelling “white power” — his off-the-cuff style will continue to be a political tool.
“If once in a while he goes off on a tweet storm about Dr. Fauci, OK,” said a person close to the White House, referencing the president’s occasional attempts — including on Tuesday night — to discredit Anthony Fauci, one of the government’s most respected voices on the coronavirus. “He just needs to have more days like we saw in the last week and a half than not. He doesn’t need perfection, he just needs to win 60 percent of the next 100 days.”
The attempt to get Trump relatively on message comes as coronavirus cases surge across the United States, with major spikes in Arizona, Florida and Texas. Meanwhile, the death toll from the disease has kept climbing, topping 147,000, and renewing concerns about protective equipment and hospital space.
Before last week, Trump had repeatedly dismissed the surge, arguing that it was simply due to a boost in testing availability and that there were no pending shortages of any kind. Instead, he had focused almost exclusively on reopening the economy.
The president’s eagerness to change the subject didn’t bode well in the polls: The president’s approval rating for handling the pandemic slipped to its lowest mark at the beginning of July.
As a result, White House aides started urging the president to resume a coronavirus focus, talking more about issues like vaccine development and promising therapeutics instead of boasting about the economy with millions of Americans out of work.
The White House brought back frequent briefings so the president could directly address the American people and give scripted updates on government action on Covid-19. And it revamped the communications team around the pandemic, bringing in State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
Indeed, Trump’s first briefing after the long hiatus was seen inside the White House as a success. The briefing led to a spate of coverage about how Trump was seeking to convey a different, more realistic attitude about the coronavirus.
Yet the tone started wavering within a day of his return to the White House podium in the press briefing room.
At his second briefing, the president claimed, without evidence, that the southern border wall was helping keep the coronavirus out of the U.S. and took jabs at both former President Barack Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. On Twitter, he accused both of them of spying on his campaign.
“So Obama and his team of lowlifes spied on my campaign, and got caught - Open and shut case!” Trump tweeted on Friday. ”Will they ever pay the price? The political Crime of the Century!”
But Trump hadn’t yet returned to some of his favorite talking points from the early months of the pandemic. First, that his critics were trying to suppress hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 drug for political reasons. And second, that governors should swiftly reopen their economies.
Then, on Monday, Trump resurrected both issues.
During a trip to North Carolina, Trump said, “A lot of the governors should be opening up states that they’re not opening.” And Monday night, the president began trumpeting flawed studies and comments about hydroxychloroquine, which he once took as a prophylactic, on Twitter. Tuesday, he defended his choice.
“I think it works in the early stages. I think front-line medical people believe that, too. Some. Many. So we'll take a look at it,” Trump said, without offering specifics. “It doesn't cause problems. I had no problem. I had absolutely no problem.”
To Trump’s backers, though, these outbursts are only damaging if they’re coming every single day.
“For two straight months he was almost daily going off script,” said the person close to the White House. “No one is saying he has to be someone that he’s not. It just means he can’t be generating daily negative headlines like last few months.”
Critics have long argued that the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of hydroxychloroquine in March on thin and questionable data. The agency ultimately revoked those authorities in June after a series of rigorous clinical trials showed no benefit from the drug in treating severely ill Covid-19 patients. Later research suggested it does not help mildly ill people either.
Another study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine found that hydroxychloroquine, taken alone or with azithromycin, did not appear to affect any patients with Covid-19 after taking one of the treatments for 15 days.
The president’s promotion of the drug comes as drug companies Moderna and Pfizer kicked off late stage vaccine trials with the hope that results might be available as soon as November.
But while the controversial statements have continued,Trump has still made nods to the worsening nature of the pandemic. The president canceled plans for a large Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Fla., citing safety concerns. And on Monday, he wore a mask while on his trip to North Carolina. At the podium, he asked Americans to adopt the same behaviors he only recently started displaying himself.
“I ask all Americans, regardless of background or age, to practice social distancing, which people have gotten very used to, but we have to keep doing it — remain vigilant about hygiene,” Trump said. “Wear a mask whenever appropriate.”
Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.