U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a news conference in the briefing room at the White House on August 31, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee | Getty Images
At a daily press briefing originally designed to update the public on the coronavirus outbreak ripping through America, President Donald Trump spent about 70 seconds out of 26 minutes discussing the virus. He didn’t take any questions from the media on the topic.
The vast majority of the press conference was focused on other issues, including riots in various cities and the police response. It was a decidedly different tone from prior news conferences, where Trump provided lengthy updates about the virus for at least a third of the allotted time. Most of Trump’s comments reiterated points he already made at the Republican National Convention.
Trump had previously said he would resume regular press conferences in July, with a focus on the coronavirus.
In the minute or so Trump talked about the virus, he discussed the latest on the coronavirus vaccines and point-of-care tests. The President did not mention that new cases are up, particularly in the Midwest where much of his political base lives. Trump, in fact, didn’t discuss cases, deaths or hospitalizations that had become standard fare at the often two-hours long briefings at the beginning of the pandemic.
Political communications experts and strategists say his pivot away from the outbreak is likely intentional.
News on the pandemic is a reminder, they say, ahead of the upcoming election that has killed more than 183,000 Americans so far. And that many more could die, if the virus isn’t brought under control.
“They (the administration) want people to see the coronavirus as old news,” explained Kenneth Baer, CEO of Crosscut Strategies, a political communications firm and a former communications staffer in the Obama administration.
Political strategists say it’s likely that the administration will move from praising the response to avoiding the topic altogether in the coming weeks. During a briefing on Aug. 19, Trump stressed mostly positive developments. He noted that colleges should start re-open and that testing capacity is up.
“I think the president is trying to return the focus to topics he’s more comfortable talking about, where he believes he has a policy advantage,” said Lanhee J. Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institute and policy director for Mitt Romney during his presidential run.
Chen said that politicians will generally talk about the issues that voters will want them to talk about, so things could change if cases continue to rise or become more severe.
But the pandemic could take on more of a “background issue status,” he noted, unless Biden and the Democratic Party make it a front and center issue. “Each side will want to speak to their strengths or their perceived strengths, and it’s clear the Trump campaign feels now that their strength is the economy and the ‘law and order’ thesis.” In the case of Biden, Chen said, that strength might be talk about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Others say that spending less time focused on Covid-19 could make it seem like the administration thinks it’s a solved the problem, both in terms of the health and economic impact.
“It’s entirely in Trump’s interest to downplay the continued havoc Covid is wreaking on the health of the U.S. population and on the economy,” noted Andy Williams, an account director at Hume Brophy focused on political communication and reputation management. Williams described his firm as non-partisan.
“Ignoring Covid-19 in his press conferences and speeches — we saw relatively limited attention paid to it at the RNC — is clearly a deliberate political strategy, and it makes sense,” Williams continued.
These strategies are nothing new and aren’t limited to any one candidate, strategists say.
“What stood out to me from the press conference and from the RNC is that President Trump is trying a classic communications strategy — and that’s to change the subject,” said Ben Wyskida, chief executive of Fenton, which describes itself as a non-partisan but progressive-leaning communications firm.
“He spoke about Covid-19 last week in the past tense,” Wyskida continued. “It might give the impression that Covid-19 is under control or in the past.”