WASHINGTON: “Nasty”, Donald Trump calls one reporter, “third-rate”, he brands another. The US president seems to loathe journalists but at his tempestuous coronavirus press conferences he just keeps coming back for more.
Every day for weeks now, Trump has spent up to two hours of primetime television delivering his unique blend of insults, jokes and cheerful boasts.
The briefings began as a way to inform an anxious nation on the Covid-19 emergency, turning health officials, like infectious diseases specialist Anthony Fauci, into household names.
The usually bland Vice-President Mike Pence has won respect for his calm but unvarnished updates on the numbers of the sick and dead.
Sooner or later, though, the events were bound to become all about this most limelight-loving of presidents. And it was sooner.
Trump made himself lead actor, director and producer in the latest version of a reality TV show he has been playing much of his life – the omnipotent, irascible chief executive.
In some ways it seems to have worked. Ratings have been as high, Trump likes to quote from a newspaper report, as the finale to “The Bachelor” reality show.
However, many of those viewers must have included Americans simply hoping for information on the pandemic – a captive audience.
By Thursday, even the pro-Republican editorial board of The Wall Street Journal had had enough, urging Trump to leave the briefings to experts and to keep himself mostly away.
“A friend of ours who voted for President Trump sent us a note recently saying that she had stopped watching,” the editorialists wrote in a drily devastating review.
“Why? Because they have become less about defeating the virus and more about the many feuds of Donald J Trump.”
“Fake News!” Trump tweeted furiously back at the The Wall Street Journal.
But coincidentally or not, on Thursday evening he for the first time left his briefing after around only 20 minutes. The sober experts stayed to give the bulk of the presentation – just as the Journal had recommended.
‘Thank you Mr President’
At least until Thursday’s curtailed episode, the briefings follow a careful choreography, all designed to magnify Trump.
When officials do get to the microphone, the first thing they do is give praise. This is just a recent smattering:
“As the president said so well …”
“I just want to begin by thanking President Trump.”
“Another example of the bold leadership of President Trump.”
“Great to see countries of the world rally behind President Trump.”
Things aren’t quite so ardent between Trump and the journalists.
Trump’s media bashing is nothing new. But in a room with only a handful of reporters allowed due to social-distancing measures, the presidential aggression gets very personal.
“You’re a third-rate reporter and what you just said is a disgrace, okay?” Trump told ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl.
Trump called other reporters “nasty” and “terrible”. He cautioned yet another to “be nice. Don’t be threatening”.
Trump even lashed out at the Fox News correspondent for asking a tough question, apparently wondering why the reporter was not throwing softballs, as the network’s overtly pro-Trump hosts do.
“I thought you were with Fox,” he said.
It gets weirder
Whether Trump truly loathes journalists is a matter of speculation.
As a veteran self-publicist, he revels above all in maximum exposure. He speaks to reporters far more often than typical predecessors in the Oval Office.
Trump can also count on a friendly question or two from fringe right-wing cable outlets like Oann, which have an increasingly strong presence in the briefing room.
“They treat me very nicely,” Trump recently told the Oann’s reporter, before she even began her question.
At another briefing, the new correspondent for a rival conservative network, Newsmax, turned out to be none other than Sean Spicer – a former Trump spokesman.
But there are softball questions and then there are the plain bizarre, leaving both reporters and Trump’s staff, waiting near the podium, in disbelief.
At a briefing this Wednesday, it was time for the latter: a New York Post reporter wanting to know if Trump would pardon the convicted murderer/zoo keeper star of Netflix hit “Tiger King”.
Forgotten was the raging pandemic. Forgotten were the millions of newly unemployed Americans. Forgotten were arguments over whether Trump dealt well or badly with an unprecedented crisis.
It was time to banter about “Joe Exotic” and Trump joking – presumably – that he’d “look into” the pardon idea.