Early last week, as the pandemic worsened across the United States, Donald Trump thought it'd be a good idea to brag about the television ratings for his White House press briefing. In fact, the president tweeted about his ratings -- twice -- before bringing it up during a Q&A with reporters.
Yesterday, the Republican once again wrote about his "through the roof" ratings midday, only to retweet himself shortly before midnight.
All things considered, Trump didn't need an excuse to boast, though in this case, he was apparently bothered by a Wall Street Journal editorial that ran yesterday under the headline, "Trump's Wasted Briefings." The editorial board -- one of the more reliably Republican-friendly pieces of real estate in major American print media -- lamented the fact that White House briefings on the coronavirus crisis have "become less about defeating the virus and more about the many feuds of Donald J. Trump."
The editors aren't the only ones who've noticed. The New York Times reported overnight:
As unemployment soars and the death toll skyrockets, and new polls show support for the president's handling of the crisis sagging, White House allies and Republican lawmakers increasingly believe the briefings are hurting the president more than helping him. Many view the sessions as a kind of original sin from which all of his missteps flow, once he gets through his prepared script and turns to his preferred style of extemporaneous bluster and invective.
Oddly enough, some GOP officials are so unnerved by the president's displays that they were willing to go on the record. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, a prominent White House ally, conceded that Trump "sometimes drowns out his own message." The senator added that the president should participate in the briefings once a week, instead of every day.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told the Times the briefings were "going off the rails a little bit" and suggested that he should "let the health professionals guide where we're going to go."
To be sure, as Republican rebukes go, these admonishments were mild, but their diplomatic phrasing suggests there's genuine discomfort within GOP circles over the president's strange behind-the-podium antics.
In interviews, Republican lawmakers, administration officials and members of his re-election campaign said they wanted Mr. Trump to limit his error-filled appearances at the West Wing briefings and move more aggressively to prepare for the looming recession.... One of Mr. Trump's top political advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the president, was even blunter, arguing that the White House was handing Mr. Biden ammunition each night by sending the president out to the cameras.
It seems unlikely that Trump will respond to these concerns by retreating. For one thing, the president appears to crave the spotlight to an unhealthy degree, and with the pandemic briefings effectively taking the place of his campaign rallies, it's hard to imagine him choosing to give up the on-camera time.
For another, the president genuinely seems to believe television ratings are their own reward. We recently discussed a December 2018 incident in which Trump met with congressional leaders in the Oval Office, where he 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. The same is true now: the president believes his press briefings must be valuable because people are watching.
Of course, people often slow down to stare at car crashes, too. That doesn't make them great.
Update: On cue, Trump bragged about his TV ratings once again this morning.