Team Trump deals with fallout from failed Oval Office address

The president's national address on the coronavirus was so bad, White House officials spent much of the day dealing with the effects of his failure.
Image: President Donald Trump makes an address to the nation about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic from the Oval Office of the White House
President Donald Trump makes an address to the nation about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic from the Oval Office of the White House March 11, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Ahead of Donald Trump's Oval Office address on the coronavirus outbreak, I expected him to go in one of two directions. It seemed likely that the president would either present a plan for addressing the public-health crisis or he'd try to boost public morale, assuring Americans that we've triumphed in the face of danger before and we're poised to do so again.

Over the course of about 11 minutes, Trump ended up doing neither of these things. He flubbed his own policy; he ignored key areas of concern; he spoke in a halting and strained way; he tried to shift the blame; he peddled a not-so-subtle xenophobic message; and he presented one provocative idea that won't make much of a difference. The New Yorker's Susan Glasser wrote that the president "sounded scary and ignorant and utterly inadequate."

Dan Balz added, "In times of national crisis, people look to the president for direction, reassurance and confidence. President Trump's Oval Office speech on Wednesday night provided precisely the opposite. From the misstatements to the omissions to his labored demeanor, the president sent a message that shook financial markets, disrupted relations with European allies, confused his many viewers and undermined the most precious commodity of any president, his credibility."

The Washington Post reported that, behind the scenes, Trump and his team realize that this was a failure.

Inside the White House ... aides and advisers privately acknowledged that Trump failed to accomplish the primary goal of his speech -- reassuring the nation -- and described it as disappointing and far from his best performance.

Specifically referring to the president's mistaken announcement about halting European trade and cargo, the article added, "Even Trump -- a man practically allergic to admitting mistakes -- knew he'd screwed up."

Even the construction of the speech was a mess. The Wall Street Journal reported that the address was written by a small team, led in large part by Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, neither of whom have been integrally involved with the federal response to the outbreak. There is an official White House Coronavirus Taskforce, but "many of the officials who have been working on the issue for weeks said they were cut out or ignored during the speech writing."

Complicating matters, the post-speech fallout exacerbated the problem. The Daily Beast reported, "The result was confusion. Another U.S. official said they received calls from their European counterparts asking for clarification on exactly what the president was restricting in regard to travel to and from European countries. As of Thursday night, U.S. officials abroad said they were still unclear exactly how Trump's proclamation would be implemented in real-time. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had not updated embassies with any guidance or notes on preventive measures."

Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, told the Post, "In some ways, the country is worse off after a message like that."