Even now, Trump is preoccupied with one metric: TV ratings

It's genuinely bizarre to see a leader in the midst of a deadly crisis prioritize television ratings. It's equally strange to see the leader do so publicly
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on coronavirus at the White House on March 27, 2020.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

In December 2018, Donald Trump met with congressional leaders in the Oval Office, where the president vowed to take ownership of an upcoming government shutdown. For Republicans, Trump's comments were an immediate and politically costly misstep.

Except, he didn't see it that way. In fact, the Washington Post later reported that the president was delighted with the meeting -- because a lot of people saw it. "This is why I was so great on 'The Apprentice,'" Trump told then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) the morning after the White House gathering. The president added that the television ratings for the meeting were "great."

It was a reminder about how Trump often sees current events: if he's the center of attention, the cameras are on him, and people are tuned in, little else matters.

With this in mind, the New York Times reported last week that the White House has brought back daily press briefings, most of which feature the president himself at the podium, which are drawing significant audiences. "President Trump is a ratings hit," the article began, "and some journalists and public health experts say that could be a dangerous thing."

The point of the article, of course, is that the White House briefings are inherently problematic: Americans who tune in are confronted with a president who peddles false claims, touts untested medicinal treatments, unfairly blames others for his administration's mistakes, and makes promises he can't keep.

But the Republican saw the first six words of the article -- "President Trump is a ratings hit" -- and chose not to care about the rest. Asked yesterday about the concerns about his briefings, Trump initially spent some time talking about CNN's ratings before focusing on his own.

"I think the American public -- ultimately, they should be the decider. It's like if they don't want to watch, they shouldn't watch. And we shouldn't have bigger ratings than The Bachelor or, as the New York Times said, we have Monday Night Football-type ratings. Now, I didn't say that. I have no idea what they are, in a sense, but I know that the Times ... even they said that the ratings are like Monday Night Football ratings, and that these are like Bachelor finale."

These comments came on the heels of a presidential tweet yesterday touting the television ratings for his briefings, which was followed less than an hour later by another presidential tweet on the same subject.

Again, the tweets, which referenced last week's New York Times article, conveniently overlooked the point of the article: it's a problem that so many Americans are getting unreliable information from their president in the midst of a crisis. But Trump doesn't seem to care: viewers are viewers. Good ratings, by his estimation, are the metric that measures success: if people are watching, he sees it as proof of being correct.

It's genuinely bizarre to see a leader in the midst of a deadly crisis prioritize television ratings. It's equally strange to see the leader do so publicly, unafraid of the fact that his preoccupation makes him appear petty, small, self-absorbed, and distracted from what actually matters.

Writing for the New Yorker, Susan Glasser argued the other day that Trump's mendacious press briefings on the coronavirus "will go down in history for their monumental flimflammery." She's right, of course, though so long as people were watching, the president apparently doesn't care.