WASHINGTON — For more than 90 minutes on Friday, President Donald Trump put on public display the competing lines of attack on a public health crisis that administration officials and people close to the White House say he is still trying to reconcile.
At the daily White House news briefing, Trump was back to bristling at any data point suggesting his administration’s response to the coronavirus has fallen short, just days after he notably changed his tone to offer Americans a more sober assessment of the pandemic.
Behind the messaging whiplash is a president who is strained amid intense pressure to get the pandemic under control and increasingly impatient with the pace of his own government, the officials and people close to the White House said.
“The president is feeling the pressure,” as one person close to the White House put it.
There is growing concern among people close to Trump that as the crisis grinds on, his patience will further fray.
“This is not a movie,” a person familiar with the thinking inside the White House said. “Things take time.”
That’s a tough message to sell to a president with a background in show business who likes swift endings in which he’s the hero. And the multiple tentacles of this crisis — from public health to the economy to Trump’s re-election campaign — and all the ways they overlap have raised the stakes for the president. They’ve also compounded his decision-making by ushering in a multitude of outside opinions, solicited and unsolicited.
“A lot of people are calling him with suggestions and ideas,” another person close to the president said.
People close to Trump described him as still being “in shock” that the stock market has dropped so much in the past couple of weeks. One of them noted that for two weeks Trump hasn’t been able to golf at any of his clubs or travel to his resorts in Florida or New Jersey — activities he is accustomed to doing to unwind and engage with friends and family outside of the White House. The person said that has further made the president feel as though he’s operating inside a pressure cooker.
At the same time, officials and others close to the White House said Trump feels better now about the public perception of his response to the virus crisis than he did a week ago — and he’s been buoyed by some positive feedback on some of his recent actions as well as a new poll showing an increase in Americans’ confidence in his leadership.
“For him, what gets you through a crisis mentally is knowing that people are appreciating how you’re handling it,” one of the people close to the White House said.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere tells NBC News that “no other administration has been as transparent and as accessible as President Donald J. Trump, and that has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The bold and decisive actions this president has taken throughout this pandemic are purely about protecting the public health,” Deere said, “including the unprecedented collaboration to curb the spread of the virus, expand testing capacities, and expedite vaccine development. The president has said we are putting politics aside and coming together to take care of all Americans, including affected industries and small businesses, to make sure we emerge from this crisis healthy, safe and strong.”
There’s some bubbling disagreement among the president’s allies, inside and outside the White House, about whether he should continue holding daily news conferences about the coronavirus, which often last longer than an hour.
The initial strategy was to make sure “he was in front of the American people” and showing them he was a leader and in charge, a person close to Trump said.
Initial reactions to his appearances noted his more measured tone and narrow focus on the crisis gripping the country. The president’s aides say he’s the best messenger the White House has, and Trump’s re-election campaign believes his appearances are helpful.
“Americans want to see their president out front, leading the country through difficult periods, and that’s exactly what President Trump is doing,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News. “He and the experts on his Coronavirus Task Force provide much-needed daily updates to citizens and reassure them that their federal government is on the case.”
But other allies of the president have begun to question the merits of having the president appear daily in the White House briefing room, saying privately that it risks making him look like a press secretary.
Among their concerns is that Trump risks appearing indecisive and small when compared to the performances of governors across the country, who are taking bold steps to address the pandemic. One person close to the White House described the president as “caught in a cycle of incrementalism” as he tries to deal with the pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
Another said while the briefings seem to be working now, the strategy should be reassessed regularly, noting, “You cannot keep doing these press conferences if you don’t have significant updates.”
Those concerns were heightened as they watched his Friday news conference.
Trump announced relief for Americans with monthly student loan payments and said that he had triggered the Defense Production Act to give the administration power to increase production of much-needed medical supplies.
But he also offered a rosy outlook for a possible antidote to the virus that he said was based on “just a feeling,” not facts. He berated reporters. He blamed delays in testing and shortages of medical supplies on a system he inherited. And he vented about not getting enough credit for his efforts.
“For the hundredth time I, this administration, inherited an obsolete system,” Trump said Friday. “We inherited a broken, old, frankly a terrible system and we haven’t been given the credit we deserve.”
Trump has won some plaudits, including from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who said Friday that while his state needs more tests, they are moving more quickly.
“I want to thank the vice president and especially the president, who facilitated this and moved quickly,” Cuomo said.
“We’ve been talking to the federal government about the federal government authorizing states to do testing,” he added. “State health departments regulate labs in their states. We need obviously more testing capacity, and we need it quickly. So I spoke to the vice president about this.”
White House officials acknowledged Trump’s frustrations that medical supplies and test kits are not getting out quickly enough, and argued that some aspects of the response are out of the president’s hands. They pointed to the sometimes lengthy lag time between various decisions and actions.
“The hardest thing is he wants to use every lever of power that is available to him to respond to the crisis. In some cases because of our federal system some of those levers aren’t available to him,” the person familiar with the thinking inside the White House said. “The president is using every authority that he has, but it sometimes takes days or weeks.”
Critics of the president’s response have said that had he taken certain steps earlier, the needed equipment, supplies and facilities would be in place now.
The president’s frustrations seemed to boil over when he was asked what he says to Americans who are scared as they see more than 200 people in the country dead and at least 15,000 sick from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I’d say that you’re a terrible reporter,” he said to NBC’s Peter Alexander, the White House correspondent who asked the question. “That’s what I’d say. I think it’s a very nasty question.”
The president’s response was a stark contrast to the answer Vice President Mike Pence gave when asked the same question. “I would say don’t be afraid, be vigilant,” Pence replied.
Pence has been in charge of the president’s Coronavirus Task Force for weeks. But in recent days his efforts have been complicated by the role of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is a senior White House adviser.
There is some frustration within the administration that Kushner’s involvement has created a parallel task force that’s confusing the process at a time when the president can’t afford confusion. Kushner’s critics say he’s stepped in last week to assume a key role in the response because of the political pitfalls the president faces over his handling of the crisis. They said his role, in part, seems to be to make sure that all administration officials “stick to the party line,” as one person close to the White House described it, after some public disagreements between Trump and his public health team.
Kushner’s involvement also has created a blind spot for other officials working on the crisis because they don’t know what he is telling the president, these people said.
An emerging concern within the White House is that Trump set an expectation last week — that the pandemic may ebb within 15 days — that the administration may not meet. And politically, officials are beginning to note that once the country is past the crisis, congressional Democrats will begin investigations that will keep the spotlight on Trump’s response.
But for now, administration officials and people close to the White House say the biggest hurdles facing Trump once the country gets through the pandemic are the immeasurable economic fallout and the president’s image, which are politically inseparable. Their hope is he doesn’t get in his own way.
“The president is uniquely in a position where he must show action and resolve while comforting and giving assurances to the American people,” a person close to the White House said. “It is a fine line to walk for anybody.”