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There is nothing Donald Trump loves more than a rally. It’s where he gets to hear hordes of people screaming his name in ecstasy, where he gets to call for the downfall of his enemies, and where he gets to talk, uninterrupted, for hours at a time about any passing thought he chooses. He loves his rallies so much he’s done 96 of them since being elected president. The rally is perhaps the only place Donald Trump is truly happy. Or at least, it was.
In mid-March, however, with the coronavirus spreading ever more rapidly, Trump reluctantly announced that he’d be canceling his campaign rallies for the foreseeable future, depriving himself of the closest thing our president has to a sanctuary. To make matters worse, Trump’s sole source of self-soothing was being ripped from him by the thing he hates more than anything: his job. The country was being ravaged by a pandemic that he was in charge of containing, and a failure to do so could be catastrophic to his reelection chances.
Trump’s second instinct—his first instinct having been to pretend the outbreak wasn’t happening and to tell people the virus would go away—was to find someone else to take responsibility. And so, just as things were beginning to get too bad to ignore, Trump appointed Mike Pence to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Not only would his vice president happily obey orders, but any blame for the administration’s response efforts could easily be offloaded on Pence and away from Trump. As NBC reported, “Trump thought being the public face of the daily White House briefings on the pandemic would come with an onslaught of criticism, people familiar with the matter said.”
Then Trump saw how much attention the vice president was receiving, and he decided to start regularly leading the televised daily updates himself. Since March 9, Trump has held 27 coronavirus task force briefings.
And, at least according to any metric Trump cares about, it’s paying off. Every day he gets to fill airtime across multiple networks, find new reasons to stoke outrage at the national media among his base, and receive some of the best coverage of his presidency. There is nothing a talking head loves more than a president looking stern-faced in a crisis, and Trump has been more than happy to oblige.
In a recent article titled “Trump Literally Laughed at How He Can Game the Press With His ‘New Tone,’ ” the Daily Beast reported that Trump’s somber pivot was very much by design:
And over the past three years, the president has periodically remarked—sometimes with a self-aware chuckle or smirk—about how “easy” it is for him to trigger praise from a typically adversarial press simply by acting “nice” during a particularly weighty moment.
“It’s so easy, can you believe it?” the president said during a dinner at the White House in early 2017, according to a source who was in the room at the time. “All I had to do was be a little nice … and do something beautiful [and now they’re] saying all these terrific things about Trump.”
It’s certainly been paying off. In one CNN segment from mid-March, Dana Bash had nothing but praise for the president.
From the clip:
If you look at the big picture, this was remarkable from the president of the United States. This is a nonpartisan—this is an important thing to note and to applaud from an American standpoint and from a human standpoint. He is being the kind of leader that people need at least in tone today and yesterday, in tone that people need and want and yearned for in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Just a week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had stopped holding its own coronavirus briefings because the White House’s task force kept elbowing in to hold their own last-minute pressers. These, led by a failed meat salesman and a man who allowed Indiana’s HIV crisis to flourish, were naturally given precedence.
While Trump allows medical professionals and other featured players to participate on a rotating basis, everyone knows that Trump is the star. He leads the briefings, he fields the questions (even going so far as to prevent Anthony Fauci from providing answers that might embarrass him), and he gets the praise he craves. While he may be delighted to receive positive, or even respectfully mixed, reviews from the same reporters he publicly excoriates, he’s also managed to turn the events themselves into a daily worship session.
By now, everyone knows that the best way and perhaps only way to get Trump’s cooperation is to slather him in praise. The sincerity of the compliment makes no difference; all that matters is that it’s effusive. Three years in, the few government officials who remain are happy to oblige—and with millions of lives hanging in the balance, even would-be independent public health experts will do whatever it takes to keep the president from derailing their efforts in a burst of pique.
The result is a daily ritual where, quite literally, the first priority of all the pandemic responders is the boosting of the president’s ego. In poring over Trump’s briefings from the past month for the fits of sycophancy anyone who wishes to speak seems required to perform, I found myself with nearly an hour of pure bootlicking. To spare you at least some of the secondhand embarrassment, I trimmed it down to just over three minutes:
Occasionally, truly critical information will be sandwiched between calls to recognize Trump as the one true king. Often, though, each day’s dose of meaningful new information or policy could have been tossed out in a press release. None of that affects the length or pacing of the show, though, because more than anything these briefings exist simply to fill that cavernous void in Trump’s soul where his rallies used to go.
He often speaks for over an hour, rambling his way through a stream of consciousness in the sort of stand-up comedy cadence his rallygoers know and love. He’ll take questions from Jim Acosta, giving him an opportunity for some performative media-bashing in the moment and some Twitter material for later. He’ll listen to officials prostrate themselves, visibly basking in the warm glow of their stilted praise.
It’s not all fun, of course. As much as his media bashing is a performance, he also genuinely despises being questioned—especially when the questions are about unpleasant concrete facts such as the country’s inability to test for the disease as he promised it would, or the chronic failure to deliver masks, ventilators, and other critical gear. He’ll often have a tantrum or two, occasionally storming out if things get really bad. For the most part, though, this is the best part of Trump’s day.
Meanwhile, Pence, the actual head of the task force, is little more than an afterthought. In a randomly chosen period of seven episodes, Donald Trump overwhelmed his chosen coronavirus leader in speaking time:
I chose not to include the time Trump spent leaning in to interrupt someone else’s podium time, because it felt cruel.
Mike Pence, for his part, knows perfectly well what this is. Over the course of Trump’s presidency, Mike Pence has been more than happy to do his boss’s bidding, often humiliating himself in the process. And he knows that if he wants to keep his spot in the president’s good graces, he has to perform subservience to an astonishing degree.
If you watch the briefings back to back, one of the things that most stands out is Pence’s constant crediting of Trump. He refuses to even so much as begin to intimate that he himself might have had some say in anything that’s happening related to the task force he leads. Over the course of the week I surveyed, Pence said some variation of “as the president said” or “as the president likes to say” or “at the president’s direction” no less than 38 times in his less than an hour of speaking time.
In fact, Mike Pence’s brief moments in the spotlight seem to be almost exclusively for the purpose of reminding everyone that he’s little more than a go-between. He discusses the task force now and then, but everything eventually always comes back to Trump.
During that same period of seven days, Pence’s references to Trump beat references to the coronavirus currently ravaging the country at a ratio of roughly 5 to 3.
Still, despite these displays being largely for and about Trump, people are desperate for information and will continue to tune in. It’s the largest, most captive audience Trump has ever had. He may lack the immediate feedback loop of a rally, but he’s found a more than adequate replacement in the daily parade of government officials describing the various ways in which they’d die for him. The daily presser has largely stopped being even remotely useful, but like his rallies, now that he has it, it’s hard to see why he’d ever give it up.