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How a media-distracted Trump ended up derailing his own briefing

   Saturday April 25, 2020 - 10:35 AM
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Washington - President Donald Trump was absent from the Situation Room on Wednesday when William Bryan, the acting head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, presented the findings of a new study to the White House coronavirus task force. The findings were intriguing -- and potentially in line with something Trump has been speculating on for weeks: that the spread of coronavirus could be slowed by warmer weather. Vice President Mike Pence and the other members of the task force listened to Bryan intently, people familiar with the meeting said. When he was finished, some members of the team encouraged him to refine his presentation. Some openly wondered whether the results were solid enough for public consumption.

 

The task force suggested Bryan, who has extensive military experience but is not a scientist nor does he have a medical background, return with an updated version the next day to take to the President -- and to the press. When Bryan arrived Thursday with a camera-ready presentation, Trump again wasn't at the 3 p.m. ET coronavirus task force meeting, the sources said. But in the minutes before Trump's planned early evening news conference, Bryan quickly explained his findings to the President in the Oval Office. Moments later, Bryan was standing at the White House podium explaining how sunlight, ultraviolet rays and disinfectants -- such as bleach and alcohol -- could shorten the half-life of coronavirus. But when Bryan's explanation ended, things went sideways. As his health advisers looked on expressionless, the President started lobbing questions about whether light or disinfectants could be used inside the human body to cure coronavirus. Trump and the White House spent the next 24 hours trying to rationalize the comments while health departments reminded Americans that ingesting bleach is lethal.

 

At Friday's briefing -- at 22 minutes, the shortest since Pence got involved with the task force -- the President walked off without taking any questions. The episode, coming as the White House coronavirus task force attempts to turn the page on a generation-defining pandemic, was viewed as an avoidable disaster inside the administration, officials said. Aides said they were foiled by a leader with a penchant for thinking out loud and following his own instincts over those with expertise or specialized training. Explanations for the episode varied. The White House press secretary insisted in a statement Friday that Trump was being taken out of context by the media. The President himself claimed disingenuously that he was being sarcastic. The White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said Trump was merely talking through new information out loud. Fact check: Trump lies that he was being 'sarcastic' when he talked about injecting disinfectant Fact check: Trump lies that he was being 'sarcastic' when he talked about injecting disinfectant "I think he just saw the info at the time, immediately before the press conference, and he was still digesting the info," she said in an interview on Fox News.

 

Whatever the explanation, the comments threw the White House's attempts at wartime messaging off-kilter. Widely mocked and hastily rebutted by health experts, Trump's musings about the potential treatments prompted exactly the type of negative headline to which he's become highly attuned as he weathers the biggest crisis of his presidency. People close to the President who speak with him often describe a leader who has become more sensitive to criticism in the last several months as his reelection nears, the economy craters and his handling of the coronavirus outbreak draws scrutiny. Those sources say Trump has complained more about media coverage than ever, which many believe is grounded in his isolation at the White House: Like most Americans, he cannot leave his home for a round of golf or lunch with old friends at the club.

 

He has grown irritated by the aides who now surround him inside the White House. And he is adjusting to a new chief of staff, former Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, which has resulted in late-night phone calls and a reckoning on how the West Wing is run. starts to reopen but nervous mayors warn that coronavirus crisis isn't over People who watched the last three chiefs of staff said the President often called them nonstop at the beginning of their tenure, no matter the hour. As he grows frustrated that he has received no praise for his response to the coronavirus, complaining there are not enough people on television defending him, his outreach to underlings has scaled up.

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