In Corona, Trump Has a New ‘Rival’ – Will It Help Him Hold Power? 

Trump’s verbal assaults have a dual purpose – to reduce the credibility of the press & win the upcoming elections.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Trump used for representational purposes.
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President Donald Trump takes the meaning of a ‘bully pulpit’ quite literally – he threatens countries and he berates, belittles and demeans reporters on a daily basis for simply doing their job.

Any journalist who dares to question, even indirectly, his administration’s faltering response to the coronavirus pandemic, is deemed hostile and put down with a verbal swatter. Yet, they attend the daily briefing because they must do their job.

There are two strategies leaders have employed across the world: one is to face the press as a legitimate pillar of democratic societies and answer questions, and the other is to pretend journalists are an unessential service and must either be coopted or coerced.

Trump clearly employs the first strategy but with a painful twist.

He doesn’t really answer questions because he rarely lets anyone complete them. He talks over the journalists and to his base. So far, the strategy seems to be working.

Trump’s Verbal Assaults Have a Dual Purpose

President Trump allows no criticism of his handling of the pandemic or the severe shortages of medical supplies across the United States, or of the limited availability of test kits and the long delays in getting results.

Even those inured to ‘Trump talk’, having watched the gradual disappearance of dignity from the podium, are shocked at the virulence of his attacks on journalists. The journalists can cite a dozen governors struggling to find masks and ventilators but Trump will dismiss them with an angry flourish.

Trump’s verbal assaults have a purpose – to reduce the credibility of the press to such an extent, that his words will have more currency than a media investigation into Washington’s bumbling response to the pandemic.

Half the country already approves of his handling of the crisis.

Then there is a second purpose. This is an election year, and Trump knows that his handling of the ‘war’ against the virus will be the defining metric. He uses the daily briefing not just to be the ‘cheerleader’ for the country as he repeatedly says, but also to dominate the airwaves in lieu of campaign rallies.

He is getting a million unique viewers for every White House briefing and it’s now become part of his reelection strategy. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

How Trump ‘Bullied’ India On Hydroxychloroquine Export

Trump knows his real opponent now is the coronavirus, not Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party aspirants for the nomination to run against him. He wants to be seen as having done a good job of beating the virus even if reality remains obstinately different. If reporters come in the way or a foreign country, Trump simply won’t have it.

India was in the line of fire on Monday when Trump openly talked of ‘retaliation’ if New Delhi didn’t lift the ban on the export of Hydroxychloroquine, a drug not yet scientifically proven to be effective, but Trump wants Americans to be able to try it if their doctors approve.

Once Trump got going on the drug’s supposedly miraculous powers, he gratuitously added that India had taken advantage of the US on trade ‘for many years’ – his go-to complaint against all countries.

He recalled his ‘very good talk’ with Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day earlier as a reason for his surprise that India may not comply with his request.

Apparently India had lifted the hold on exports hours before Trump’s threat and done so for a number of reasons, including fulfilling its obligations as a responsible partner and friend. The message had reportedly been conveyed through institutional channels to various foreign ministries in the neighbourhood and beyond.

But facts have a way of reaching Trump late, if at all. If a reporter willing to put his neck on the chopping block were to ask him about threatening India a day later, it’s very likely he would deny he said anything objectionable at all.

How American Press Has Been Standing Up to Trump

Indian officials no longer worry too much because they have built-in elasticity for ‘Trump talk’. But politicians are another matter, and Modi’s managers will likely remember Trump’s missile in the times of corona.

But the India ‘interlude’ is nothing compared to the pain Trump inflicts on American reporters. He told Jonathan Karl, the president of the White House Correspondents Association and an ABC News correspondent, that he was a ‘third-rate reporter’ because Karl dared to ask about a government report on the federal government’s failure to provide hospitals with testing kits and equipment.

Even the Trump-friendly Fox News is not exempt from the tirades. He told a Fox News reporter that she was being ‘so horrid’ in the way she asked about shortages listed in the same report. On a question about the glitch-ridden rollout of a ‘pay cheque protection programme’ for the most vulnerable workers, he schooled the reporter by telling her she should have framed the question differently and talked about the ‘tremendous start’ of the initiative.

Trump Gives the ‘Bully Pulpit’ A Whole New Dimension

Trump wants ‘positive’ questions – a mystery that shall remain unsolved as to what they are – and regularly doubts reporters’ motives.

It’s shocking and even frightening, but to the credit of the American press, they have been raising good questions through the pandemic and getting a presidential beating in return.

Sometimes Trump is right to spot a loaded question from an outlet that has a China link, as he did with a reporter this week who asked him about cooperating with Beijing on a coordinated response. He bluntly asked her who owned her network Phoenix TV, and it turned out that China did have a stake in it.

All said and done, the bully pulpit has got a whole new dimension to it under Trump.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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