WASHINGTON — After nearly 50 coronavirus press briefings in March and April, President Donald Trump’s aides and allies are increasingly worried that his lengthy appearances are backfiring politically and White House officials say they are evaluating whether to reduce his participation in news conferences in the weeks to come.
Concerns that the briefings are hurting the president reached an inflection point Thursday evening when Trump suggested that people might be able to inject household cleaning items or disinfectants to deter the coronavirus, sparking immediate and universal backlash from the medical community.
On Friday, Trump held the shortest coronavirus briefing to date — 21 minutes — and did not take any questions from reporters.
“The president has taken questions for 49 briefings since the end of February. This president's the most accessible in modern history, the most transparent,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Saturday when asked by reporters why Trump cut the Friday briefing short, adding that he had taken “many, many” questions from reporters earlier in the day during a bill signing ceremony.
It was there he told reporters his injection remarks were "sarcastic."
There was no briefing on Saturday and the White House schedule released for Sunday listed no public events for the president, but that is always subject to change.
On Saturday evening, around the time same time he has usually been at podium, Trump tweeted that the briefings are "Not worth the time & effort!" because he's asked "hostile questions" by the press, who "get record ratings."
When asked if Trump would stop holding the briefings, McEnany said “I leave that to the president. That is entirely his decision.”
“He is always fact-driven. There is always statistics sprinkled through what he shares,” she added.
Since the daily briefings began in March, they have dominated evening cable news and have driven public conversation about the coronavirus.
Trump himself has boasted about the viewership, saying on Twitter that his average ratings matched a season finale of “The Bachelor" and "Monday Night Football."
The idea of curtailing briefings, which was first reported by Axios, was already being discussed before Thursday’s controversial comments, as aides in and outside the White House grew increasingly worried over the president's two-hour marathon appearances, especially when they veer off-topic.
The initial strategy was to make sure “he was in front of the American people” and showing them he was a leader and in charge, a person close to Trump said. Both his re-election campaign and administration aides have publicly insisted that Trump is the best messenger and that his daily appearances are helpful.
“Americans want to see their president out front, leading the country through difficult periods, and that’s exactly what President Trump is doing,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News last month. “He and the experts on his Coronavirus Task Force provide much-needed daily updates to citizens and reassure them that their federal government is on the case.”
“I believe the president's at his best when he's speaking directly to the American people,” McEnany said on Saturday.
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But privately, some aides take a different tone. Allies of the president have questioned the merits of having the president appear in the White House briefing room seven days a week, saying that it risks making him look like a press secretary.
While the president wants to make daily statements to the American people, it also provides an opportunity everyday for his controversial comments to overshadow his administration’s response.
“You cannot keep doing these press conferences if you don’t have significant updates,” one administration official said, arguing that the strategy should be reassessed regularly.