Trump berates media at jaw-dropping briefing

On Monday morning I had a delivery to my apartment from the nearby off-licence – or liquor store, as they say over here.

And I put a jokey picture on Twitter of a bottle of gin and eight bottles of tonic, with the caption that at least I had the next week sorted.

I was in Vietnam when Mr Trump gave a news conference after his talks with Kim Jong-un had unceremoniously collapsed. So I’ve sat in on some corkers.

What made last night’s encounter unique was the context. And secondly, this was, if you like, a distillation – all the talk of gin, I think, forced me to use that word – in one news conference of what three and a half years of Donald Trump has been like to cover.

There are more than 23,000 Americans dead because of coronavirus and more than half a million infected – and remember that, in early March, Donald Trump was saying there were a handful of cases, but that would soon be down to zero.

Yet Donald Trump walked into the briefing room with scores to settle with the media. This wasn’t about the dead, the desperately sick, the people fearful of catching the virus. This was about him. And more particularly his profound sense of grievance that the media has been critical of his handling of Covid-19.

If you think that is an unfair exaggeration, after a few moments he said he was going to play a video. It had been produced by White House staff, even though it bore all the hallmarks of a campaign video. If it was a movie, it would have been called “Coronavirus: Why Donald Trump is Great – and the Media Awful”.

One of the reporters quoted in the film would complain immediately afterwards that her words had been taken out of context.

If you were watching the news conference on TV, you would have seen the film. But in the briefing room, where I had my vantage point, Donald Trump was alternately scowling at us, then pointing and smiling derisively and then smirking, as if to say “Look at all you losers – I’ve nailed you with this”.

Contempt seemed to ooze out of every pore. Central to the president’s argument is that at the end of January he stopped a lot of flights coming from China and that had saved countless thousands of American lives.

Paula Reid from CBS pushed back forcefully, arguing that, bold move though that was, it wasn’t followed through with any meaningful action in February when testing was minimal and precious time was lost.

The president was enraged. You could see the fury coursing through him as he was extremely rude to her (he didn’t answer the detail of her arguments though). He called her a “fake” and “disgraceful”.

So here we have a president who apparently hates us. But. But. But. He stuck around and answered questions for a full hour-and-a-half. It was like a band on their farewell tour wanting to one more encore. He loves it. He is in his element. And he hates us too.

Going back to my previous experience of news conferences, I always think you are lucky if you get to ask one question. Most often you don’t get to ask one – particularly if you are from a foreign news organisation. I think I asked five questions to the president (and one of them got a “that’s a very good question” – 10 points for me). He loves to engage.

This president is more accessible than any senior politician I have ever known. And who can complain about that? He stood there and took all questions for an age, knowing full well this was playing out across all the US networks – and around the world, given the range of messages I got from all and sundry. But it is also confounding. You feel he wants to be loved, and can’t understand it when it is not forthcoming.

Then there is power. Coronavirus is unlike any enemy he has faced before. It’s unlike any enemy that any of us have come up against, as it doesn’t have a face. And Donald Trump is great when there’s a name and a face. “Lyin’ Ted”, “Sleepy Joe”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Little Marco” – and on and on and on. But there really isn’t much point insulting a virus. It doesn’t respond and seems utterly indifferent to what names it is called.

Before the White House, the president ran a family business where everyone answered to him. At Monday night’s news conference he gave every impression of wanting to run America like that.

He has said he wants to reopen the US for business as quickly as possible – if you’re interested, my Q&A with him concerned the feasibility of that, a laudable ambition. But is that his prerogative, or that of the 50 state governors? Remember the US has a federal constitution.

Donald Trump was in no doubt last night that it was up to him to decide when America lifted the shutters and changed the sign on the door from “closed” to “open”.

But if it was down to the individual states to decide on when it was appropriate to issue “shelter in place” orders – and the president said he couldn’t order six states controlled by Republican governors to enforce social distancing – how can it be his prerogative to order the reverse?

After listening to the president, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York state, said this: “The constitution says we don’t have a king. To say I have total authority over the country because I’m the president, it’s absolute, that is a king. We didn’t have a king, we didn’t have king George Washington, we had President George Washington.”

That is not how the guy who ran the family firm sees it.

At the end of this rollercoaster of a ride of a news conference, I tried to make sense of it as I left the White House.

Like so much in this divided country, I suspect it is entirely a question of where you stand. His supporters will probably have loved him sticking it to the media the moment he walked into the briefing room.

His opponents will have been appalled that he could put the coverage of his own handling of the crisis above the suffering of the American people.

Before I made it into the briefing room last night, I had to have my temperature taken in a tent that’s been erected just outside the White House estate on Pennsylvania Avenue. And I had to have it taken again before I would be allowed to enter the briefing room.

Good thing they didn’t do blood pressure. I’m sure a fair few people – participants and observers -would have had very different before and after readings.

After temperature taken twice now in White House awaiting ⁦@realDonaldTrump⁩ press conference, in socially distanced briefing room. Only 14 reporters allowed

End of Twitter post 2 by @BBCJonSopel

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