The Media Today

The White House wages war on transparency: Trump’s health edition

October 5, 2020

Last November, Trump made a surprise visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. White House officials said that he was there for a routine physical check-up, but reporters weren’t inclined to believe that; as the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein put it at the time, “When you’ve burned all your credibility on big, medium and petty matters you lose the benefit of the doubt on important stuff.” Now—with Trump back at Walter Reed following his positive test for COVID-19—stuff could hardly be more important, and the president and his spokespeople still seem to expect us all to suspend our disbelief. The result was a mind-bending weekend that began with Trump being taken to the hospital and ended with him parading outside of it in an SUV so he could wave to his supporters (it was “like Michael Jackson dangling a baby over a balcony,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said), with lie after lie after lie sandwiched in between. The messaging mess drew comparisons to the empires of old, to North Korea, and to the Soviet Union—the real thing, as well as the version imagined in the satirical movie The Death of Stalin.

The questions and confusion began in the early hours of Friday morning, after Trump announced his diagnosis via Twitter, and intensified in the early evening, as Marine One lifted off from the White House for Walter Reed. Trump’s doctors declined to hold a briefing while that was going on. On Saturday, they did hold one, giving a sunny accounting of the president’s health. They neglected to state that Trump had been administered oxygen—and after the briefing finished, an anonymous source gave a quote to reporters on the scene that contradicted what the doctors had just said: “The president’s vitals over the last twenty-four hours were very concerning and the next forty-eight hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path yet to a full recovery.” The source, we soon learned, was Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff. After a video emerged that showed him asking reporters if he could speak off the record, Meadows agreed to let the Associated Press put his name to the comment. He also gave an on-the-record interview to Reuters in which he appeared to contradict his own contradiction, stating that, actually, Trump was doing “very well,” and that his doctors were “very pleased with his vital signs”; later, Meadows told Fox News that he had been concerned about Trump, but had since observed an “unbelievable improvement.” Still, Trump was reportedly furious when he learned of Meadows’s initial remark. On Saturday afternoon, he dictated a statement to Rudy Giuliani, who in turn relayed it to the New York Post. “You go tell people I’m watching this coverage,” the statement read. “I feel I could get out of here right now.” Trump also put out a video, and photos showing him at work. In one of them, he appeared to be signing a blank piece of paper.

Related: Disbelief and Trump’s diagnosis

The doctors’ Saturday briefing didn’t just present a misleading picture of Trump’s health—it also muddied the timeline as to when Trump learned of his diagnosis. Sean Conley, Trump’s physician, said it had been seventy-two hours since Trump’s positive test, while another doctor said it had been forty-eight hours since Trump received an experimental treatment: by this accounting, Trump would have tested positive around midday last Wednesday and received treatment around the same time on Thursday. (Remember: he tweeted out his diagnosis early Friday morning, having traveled to New Jersey for a fundraiser on Thursday.) Later, Conley put out a statement (which itself contained several errors) claiming that he misspoke.

Yesterday, Conley fronted another briefing. He started out by offering some hard details, but things quickly descended into farce again. When a reporter asked him why he hadn’t mentioned Trump’s oxygen dosage the day before, Conley replied, “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction, and in doing so, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.” As quotes go, it was less pithy than Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” or Giuliani’s “truth isn’t truth”; nonetheless, it deserves its place in the pantheon of the Trumpworld absurd.

Unsurprisingly, all the lies, contradictions, and obfuscation went down poorly with the Washington press corps. “What is the actual state of President Trump’s health?” a palpably-exasperated Jonathan Swan, of Axios, asked on Saturday. “It’s one of the most high-stakes questions in the world, and I cannot answer it, despite having spent since 5am on Friday on my phone with sources inside and close to the White House.” New York’s Olivia Nuzzi and Ben Jacobs wrote that “the White House is at war with the virus, with itself, and with reality—though not necessarily in that order”; the Meadows remark, ABC’s Jon Karl told the Washington Post, was a reminder that “you can really take almost nothing that is on the record at face value.” According to Swan, Nuzzi, Jacobs, and others, even people within the White House were clueless as to what was going on. Many people who were exposed to Trump last week—Joe Biden among them—said they found out about Trump’s diagnosis via the media.

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Also among the exposed: the members of the press who traveled on Air Force One and were present at the White House last week. Since Friday, at least four reporters covering the White House have tested positive for COVID. Only one of them—Michael D. Shear, of the New York Times—has been named; he told the Post that while he accepts an inevitable “element of risk” in doing his job, “there are some things the White House could have done to minimize the risk more.” Officials haven’t always allowed for adequate social distancing among reporters and frequently address them without wearing masks; in May, Trump even told Jeff Mason, of Reuters, to take his mask off, and accused Mason of being “politically correct” when he refused. Last Thursday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, briefed reporters indoors without a mask even though Hope Hicks, a senior Trump aide, had already tested positive. On Friday, Meadows went maskless while addressing reporters outdoors; yesterday, Alyssa Farah, the White House communications director, did likewise, even though she was briefing that aides would henceforth wear masks. Farah said she’d misplaced hers after doing an interview on Fox.

Given these myriad informational and health challenges, many reporters on the ground did excellent, clear work over the weekend. But it wasn’t enough to stop confusion from pooling out across the mainstream media landscape as a whole. In the absence of reliable facts, cable news shows often resorted to alarmist speculation and blather—including, disappointingly, from medical experts—reading between the lines of Trump’s treatment regimen, as well as the fact that he was hospitalized at all. (The many dark inferences that were drawn from the latter fact may be justified, but we don’t know that yet, and comparing Trump to COVID patients in the wider population is fraught; the president, after all, doesn’t have to fight a resource-strained triage system to win hospital admittance.) At the other end of the spectrum, major outlets parroted the optimism of Trump’s doctors in headlines and push notifications, including their claim that Trump could be discharged as soon as today. (Even if that claim reflects an honest assessment, we know that COVID symptoms can wax and wane in their early days.)

As I wrote on Friday, while reporters peer through the murk to get to the truth of Trump’s condition, the rest of us should cut out the speculation and credulity and pin this story to what we know for sure. In addition to the known facts I listed Friday—Trump’s responsibility for the massive national COVID death toll, his subversion of public-health measures, and so on—his White House’s war on transparency and the truth is itself a key part of the story that we can broadcast now. It shows contempt for the work of the press and, by extension, the American people—to go with the contempt Trump has shown for journalists’ physical health, for the health of his own donors in New Jersey, for the health of the agents who had to ride with him for his SUV photo op yesterday, and so on. Unlike Trump’s condition, the contempt is crystal clear.

Below, more on Trump, the coronavirus, and lies:

  • Disbelief: On Friday, after Trump announced his diagnosis, many observers—including respected journalists—suggested that the president might be faking it, giving his history of lying. Betsy Morais, CJR’s managing editor, found the resulting conversation disorienting. “Waking up, one received a mixed message,” she wrote Friday: “a contingent that typically stands up for journalism was arguing that the latest coverage was to be taken with a grain of salt; that, really, you can’t believe everything you read; that since Trump lies, stories about what he says are inherently suspect.”
  • “How to cover a sick old man”: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, writes that most political journalists are currently too squeamish to tell uncomfortable truths about America’s “gerontocracy.” Instead, he writes, “we need a reporting culture that’s ready to handle the public decline of this generation of leaders, as long as they insist on declining in public. Searching questions about everything from sleep to cognition shouldn’t be off limits.” Smith also reports that, since Trump’s diagnosis, major newspapers have assigned top reporters to polish his obituary.
  • Anger at ABC: On Tuesday, Chris Christie, the Trump adviser and former governor of New Jersey, came to the studio of ABC News, where he’s a contributor, to take part in the network’s debate-night coverage. His presence already raised ethical questions since Christie helped Trump prep for the debate; then, over the weekend, Christie announced that he, too, had tested positive for COVID. ABC staffers who had contact with Christie have been told to quarantine for fourteen days. An unnamed “high-profile on-air personality” at ABC told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that Christie’s “reckless behavior is risking the lives of ABC News employees. What was management thinking?”
  • Wall of Lies: Radio Free Brooklyn, a community radio station in New York, erected a “Wall of Lies”—a fifty-foot-long mural in Bushwick that lists every false and misleading claim that Trump has made since taking office, as compiled by the fact-checking team at the Washington Post. “Seen from a distance, [the wall] looks like chaos—perhaps an apt metaphor for this presidency,” Phil Buehler, who designed the wall, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “but when you step closer, you can read the individual lies.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.