the swamp

Trump’s Socially Distanced Campaign

Backed by a new loyalist press secretary, the president’s coronavirus briefings have replaced reelection rallies.

Art: Barbara Kruger
Art: Barbara Kruger

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Donald Trump glances up at the TVs on the wall or down at the newspapers on his desk. He sees himself distorted by the fake-news media. He sees his presidency under siege. With the exception of Fox News and its imitators, the coverage is uniformly critical or pessimistic, the headlines and cable segments a bundle of spears he’s unfit to dodge. Each one pricks the skin. He grows angry and annoyed.

He begins asking questions, addressing them to no one in particular. “He’s like, ‘Where are my people?!’ ” a senior White House official tells me, describing a scene the president acts out again and again. “ ‘I don’t have any fighters. I don’t have any people. Where are they?’ ”

It’s often said that Trump is his own best spokesman. Howard Rubenstein, his mouthpiece in the 1980s and ’90s, even told me that once. And as the coronavirus crisis swelled, Trump became his own answer to his questions — his own “people,” his own “fighter” — assuming a familiar position on the unfamiliar terrain of a public-health and economic emergency.

Unable to deny the rising death toll and envious of the spotlight fixed on Vice-President Mike Pence — who had been appointed the leader of the coronavirus task force when Trump was still trying to wish the whole drama away — he’s now devoting rally-length stretches of his days to televised appearances in the White House briefing room.

“I think he feels like he’s a wartime president. Roosevelt did a fireside chat, and this is Trump’s version of a fireside chat,” says Senator Lindsey Graham. “I do think they go on too long,” he added with a laugh. “You can’t say he’s dodging the press!”

Attended by only a handful of reporters but viewed in record numbers by a public desperate for information and with nothing better to do, the briefings are held in this modest West Wing space, a far cry from the crowded arenas designed for concerts and monster-truck jams that he prefers.

During one briefing last week, as the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States swelled, Trump used a question about the safety of in-person voting to claim, falsely, that “thousands and thousands of people” commit fraud with mail-in ballots.

When a reporter informed him, last month, that Mitt Romney was forced into quarantine after potential exposure to the virus via his infected Senate colleague Rand Paul, he couldn’t help but smirk. “Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad,” he said.

Even when he focuses his attention on the crisis at hand, he sounds — well, like Donald Trump. “There will be a lot of death, unfortunately,” he said last week, “but a lot less death than if this wasn’t done — but there will be death.”

He attacks the media in general and specific reporters who ask questions he dislikes. He told one “third-rate” reporter he’d “never make it.” He’s suggested that questions begin with compliments about his leadership. “It would be so much nicer if you do that,” he said, “but you’re just incapable of asking a question in a positive way.”

All the while, the medical experts look on, waiting for their next chance to get a word in.

“One of the reasons I do these news conferences is because if I didn’t, they would believe fake news, and we can’t let them believe fake news,” Trump said at a briefing earlier this month. “They see us up here. They see us with admirals. They see us with this talent.” But many of the administration’s Republican allies in Washington see him up there and wince.

“It’s completely discordant. It’s literally a matter of life and death — and a sideshow,” says a senior Republican congressional staffer. “Everyone is kind of amused by Trump and his jokes at a rally. But this isn’t a joke. To say that at a briefing about a pandemic that’s killed 15,000 Americans so far and is going to kill more? It just shows he’s incapable of rising to the occasion.” The staffer adds, “I try not to watch. It’s pretty depressing.”

Yet as networks and media critics debate whether the briefings should be aired live at all, whether allowing the president to speak uninterrupted by fact-checkers poses a public-safety risk, Americans are watching — millions more than would ordinarily see a clip from a Keep America Great rally. Meanwhile, the de facto Democratic nominee is heard from only rarely, when he beams into TV shows from his house in Delaware looking like an ordinary guest, sitting before an ordinary bookshelf, with the ordinary image quality that ordinary technology provides.

“He laughs at the fact that Joe Biden has to do basement interviews while he can speak from the podium of the White House,” says Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump in the years leading up to his presidency. “Like, Let Biden go do Zoom interviews on MSNBC while I get my wall-to-wall coverage from the White House with my entire task force behind me.

Facing a pandemic with no end in sight and an election creeping closer, the coronavirus communications strategy is functioning as the president’s reelection communications strategy more each day. “The only campaign that matters is how they deal with the virus,” the senior Republican congressional staffer tells me.

On April 7, the White House and the Trump campaign seemed to formalize the consolidation of their messaging when Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, was appointed White House press secretary. (McEnany will be the fourth person to hold the position in three years, replacing Stephanie Grisham, who replaced Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who replaced Sean Spicer.) McEnany, with a crucifix hanging from her neck, shrewdly cast herself as a Trump defender during the 2016 campaign — one of several TV-ready women whose very existence served as a useful counter to reports and displays of Trump’s mistreatment of women, in the way that his children, by virtue of being alive and not in jail and still in touch with him, serve to counter the impression that he’s just an asshole. You’re supposed to see Ivanka Trump hug her father and wonder, How bad could he actually be? McEnany and her peers were useful, too, as a pool of pundit stunt actors: When the goal is to be on TV, there’s little you won’t say to secure that outcome.

“He sees her on TV, and he likes that she can be very tough,” the senior White House official says of McEnany. “But she can be very tough like that because she’s outside the White House.”

Although it might not seem this way to anyone watching, the official says there are constraints on White House staffers that don’t exist for campaign mouthpieces. What McEnany said on Fox Business Network on February 25 — “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here” because Trump “puts America first,” unlike “with the awful presidency of President Obama” — was an example of her sounding “pretty far out” even by the standards this White House applies to staff, though never to the president.

When McEnany was in her early twenties, as the Tea Party movement emerged in response to Barack Obama’s election, she began wading into the same far-right mediasphere that would eventually make Trump president.

After graduating from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, she began advertising herself as “a conservative writer, commentator, and blogger with an extensive history in both media and politics.” She modeled herself, aesthetically and ideologically, on the more established female conservative pundits of the era, like Michelle Malkin. She contributed columns to The Daily Caller, and in May 2011, she founded Real Reagan Conservative, “a forum for discourse” committed to correcting the mistakes of a Republican Party that “moderated” itself when it nominated John McCain. McEnany also worked as a producer for Mike Huckabee’s Fox News show, and she said she’d already “made several appearances” on a handful of the network’s programs.

As a law student at the University of Miami (she ultimately transferred to Harvard and graduated in 2016), McEnany continued appearing on cable. By then, she’d rebranded Real Reagan Conservative as Political Prospect: America’s Voice, where she wrote columns about Christianity and “Benghazi — Obama’s Watergate?”

By 2016, she was showing up on TV as a “Republican strategist” and “Donald Trump supporter,” cast on panels to ensure conflict and entertainment and the suggestion of balance. “She was so suspicious of CNN makeup people that she didn’t want them doing her hair and makeup because she was afraid that they were going to purposefully make her look bad. That’s her mentality,” says a surrogate who yapped alongside her in service of Trump’s 2016 campaign.

But alleged paranoia didn’t stop her from joining CNN as a contributor, where she often spent her time trying to explain that Trump did not actually say what he said. From there, it was on to the Republican National Committee as a spokeswoman, then the Trump reelection campaign as one of the most outspoken WOMEN FOR TRUMP. As COVID-19 spread throughout the country, McEnany used her platform to claim that Democratic critics of Trump’s response were rooting for the virus to destroy the economy and tank his presidency. “They have a demented dream of taking down President Trump. It doesn’t matter how many Americans they destroy in order to get there,” she said.

In every season of scandal or crisis — Robert Mueller’s investigation, Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, Ukraine, a tell-all book or insider leak — the president blames those around him, even when they’ve replaced people he blamed before. He looks only outward, only ahead. It makes sense that McEnany would find her way to this White House — and arrive in a crisis. She was enlisted by Mark Meadows, who entered the administration as Trump’s fourth chief of staff earlier this month with plans to normalize a hopelessly warped West Wing, starting with the communications department.

At the time, Grisham was at home for two weeks in quarantine after potential exposure to the coronavirus (her test came back negative). She turned down an offer from Meadows to stay in the West Wing as communications director, opting to return to the East Wing, where she had been the spokeswoman for the First Lady, as chief of staff.

And with Trump wondering aloud where his people are, where his fighters are, it makes sense that Meadows did what nobody around the president ever does. He offered him an answer: Kayleigh McEnany.

“It’s Mark who’s trying to push for a more traditional briefing,” the senior White House official says. But it was Trump who canceled them in 2019 and refused to resume them with Grisham. He didn’t think the dynamics between the press and the podium would change no matter who was standing behind it. He’s probably right. “He’s thinking she’s going to come in here and he’s going to see her on TV all the time,” the senior White House official tells me. “None of us are on TV, because he’s on TV for two hours a day.”

*A version of this article appears in the April 13, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Trump’s Socially-Distanced Campaign