Trump just proved with his coronavirus drive-time radio show that too much transparency can be a very bad thing

John T Bennett
Donald Trump at a White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic: AFP via Getty Images

Too much transparency, it turns out, can be a bad thing.

 

The daily White House coronavirus briefings, now led exclusively by Donald Trump, have come to reflect the 45th presidency itself: The sessions are either a theater of the extreme or rather bland.

 

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham on Wednesday lavished praise on her boss, as most of those who work under him and speak publicly or tweet about him have learned to do. The alternative is, well, not pretty. Just ask former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly or former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (remember him?) Keyword: Former.

 

Grisham, who has yet to hold a formal press briefing since taking the job last year, hailed Trump as “the most accessible @POTUS in modern history! Members of the media get to ask direct questions & the American people get to hear directly from @realDonaldTrump, @Mike_Pence & medical experts on the vital topic of #COVID19.”

 

She has a point. And a strong one.

 

This president speaks with reporters often. Much more, according to experts like Martha Kumar of the Presidential Transition Project, than any of his immediate predecessors. There have been the endless “pool sprays” in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room, and of course, “Chopper Talk” over the loud hum of Marine One’s engines on the White House’s South Lawn.

 

And now, Trump hosts the equivalent of a sports talk radio show each evening in drive-time. Seem far-fetched? Consider the format. It starts with the show’s host performing off a prepared script, riffing along the way, perhaps bringing in a co-host or two from his usual cast.

 

Then, Trump takes the equivalent of calls with questions and comments.

 

But accessibility does not automatically mean transparency.

 

Take the president on Wednesday night, appearing to make policy on national television, before waffling, before again signalling he is open to a particular move to slow the spread. Maybe. Or maybe not.

 

Sir, are you considering flight restrictions domestically – especially from one highly infected city to another?

 

“Well, we're thinking about doing that. At the same time, we just, you know, to start these airlines and to start this whole thing over again is very tough, John,” Trump told Fox News White House Correspondent John Roberts, who has shone during the daily briefings.

 

“It's very tough. And you have them going, in some cases, from hotspot to hotspot. If you notice, they're usually hotspot to hotspot [with] very few flights. New York to Miami,” he added. “And – but we're thinking – we're certainly looking at it. But once you do that, you really are, you really are clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed.”

 

If you’re scoring at home, that’s five policy whim changes in a handful of garbled sentences. A presidential decree it was not.

 

Let’s take another call.

 

Mr Vice President, what should people who are currently uninsured do, since you and the president refuse to re-open the health insurance exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare?

 

Mike Pence fielded this one, and proceeded to talk about how the president had supported businesses, and how existing insurance policies and Medicaid had shown “flexibility”; in other words, he failed to address the problem directly at all. Even Trump felt a need to point out his VP’s answer only offered faux-transparency.

 

“I think it's one of the greatest answers I've ever heard,” the president quipped, “because Mike was able to speak for five minutes and not even touch your question.”

 

Right on cue, Trump’s band of drivetime co-hosts beside him on the podium chuckled, as did some of his in-studio audience, the small number of reporters still allowed in a socially distanced briefing room.

 

And when the host-in-chief has not thought about a question enough to coherently answer it, he contradicts himself and twists the bounds of logic and economics in mind-melting ways.

 

For example, the president has said in recent days that he doesn’t want states competing against one another for medical masks for health workers. He’s rightly concerned that that would create a new market for the protective face-gear, thereby driving the price through the roof.

 

Let’s go back to the phone lines.

 

Mr President, I’m a first-time caller but a longtime listener — should the American people all be wearing masks when we venture outside into our Covid-covered hellscape of a country?

 

“I don't believe – look, this is a big thing. A lot of people don't like it. Some people don't like it because you're taking it away from the medical professional. Some people don't like it for other reasons,” Trump said, appearing to make a hard policy stand to protect medical professionals on the pandemic’s frontlines.

“So, we shouldn’t buy masks if we can find them, right, sir? After all, wouldn’t that also create a new market and jack up mask prices, causing hospitals and states to pay too much in a time of economic and fiscal woe?”

 

“I don't see where it hurts. And it doesn't have to be a mask,” he said. “But what I do see people doing now is using scarves. And, I think, in a certain way, depending on the fabric, I think, in a certain way, a scarf is better. It's actually better.”

But is it?

Who would know, because Mr Trump’s Evening Zoo was off on another topic, just like your local wacky sports call-in show on your drive home. Just like that genre of radio, it’s all based on two words: “I think.”

 

That’s fine for sports fans discussing the local football team’s latest coach sacking or uniform change. But it’s no way to run a crisis communications operation.

 

And faux-transparency, with all of its contradictions and wild policy shifts, certainly is no way to respond to a deadly pandemic.

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