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Trump muses that virus briefings ‘Not worth the time and effort’

Jordan Fabian
Bloomberg

President Donald Trump has been determined to talk his way through the coronavirus crisis, but frequent misstatements at his daily news conferences have caused a litany of public health and political headaches for the White House.

On Friday, Trump sought to clean up his briefing room riff from the day before about the possibility of fighting coronavirus infection in patients with chemical disinfectant or sunlight – a dangerous idea that doctors and a manufacturer of cleaning products felt obliged to publicly warn against.

By Saturday, Trump suggested the briefings, which have become a televised daily substitute for his campaign rallies, were “not worth the time and effort,” a day after a report that he plans to scale back such appearances.

President Donald Trump turns to leave at the end of a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Friday, April 24, 2020, in Washington.

Trump on Friday said he had “sarcastically” suggested Americans be injected with disinfectant. The president’s new spokeswoman also sought to clarify his remarks.

“President Trump has repeatedly said that Americans should consult with medical doctors regarding coronavirus treatment, a point that he emphasized again during yesterday’s briefing,” the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said in a statement. “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”

Trump’s most public response to the U.S. coronavirus outbreak has been the extended news conferences he’s held almost every day, including most weekends, to talk about it. He pulled off his 2016 election upset and survived the Russia investigation and impeachment in part due to his ability to dominate media coverage. But the president has never been known as a detail-oriented leader and his off-the-cuff briefings have left many Americans distrustful of what he says.

As questions mounted about Trump’s comments on disinfectant, Trump and his coronavirus task force on Friday evening held their shortest news conference yet, at just 22 minutes. He took no questions.

There was no briefing on Saturday but instead, a series of Twitter messages that returned to familiar targets including the media and Democrats.

Just 23% of Americans consider Trump a trustworthy source of information on the virus, while 52% trust their state and local leaders, according to poll published Thursday by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago.

Trump’s Questions

Trump’s remarks on Thursday followed a presentation by a Department of Homeland Security undersecretary, Bill Bryan, who showed White House reporters new research indicating the virus wouldn’t survive as long on nonporous surfaces in higher temperatures and humidity. The research suggested summer heat could help temper the U.S. outbreak, at least temporarily, although places in warm climates such as Singapore are still battling their own outbreaks.

After Bryan’s presentation, Trump chimed in, off script.

“So I asked Bill a question that probably some of you are thinking of, if you’re totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous – whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light – and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it,” Trump said. “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too. It sounds interesting.”

Bryan responded: “We’ll get to the right folks who could.”

“Right,” Trump continued. “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that.”

Two-Hour Briefings

Even some Republicans have said Trump would be better served by holding fewer news conferences or speaking less during the events, leaving his medical experts and others to convey the information. But the former reality TV star has until now shown no sign of surrendering the lectern and has repeatedly bragged about his television ratings.

In the last month, the White House has held a coronavirus briefing on all but three days, and the last time Trump did not speak at one was late March, according to data compiled by C-SPAN. Of the 47 briefings held since the start of the pandemic response, Trump has spoken at 43 of them – the most of any administration official, the data show.

His marathon public remarks – the news conferences have extended for as long as two hours and 23 minutes, according to C-SPAN – have been peppered with false claims, exaggerations and misstatements, opening the president to criticism by Democrats seeking to defeat him in November. Trump’s claims that the virus would “disappear” and that “nobody could have ever seen something like this coming” have been included in political ads arguing he is ill-equipped to combat the pandemic.

Even government health authorities have been forced to rebut the president. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration cautioned against the use of two drugs Trump has promoted to treat coronavirus infection, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. The malaria medicine has not been shown to be effective against the virus. Nonetheless, the FDA issued an emergency order last month permitting the drug to be prescribed for hospitalized coronavirus patients, after Trump repeatedly recommended it and directed his administration to procure millions of doses.

The medicines “can cause abnormal heart rhythms” as well as “a dangerously rapid heart rate called ventricular tachycardia,” the FDA said Friday. “These risks may increase when these medicines are combined with other medicines” including azithromycin, the FDA said.

The U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, meanwhile tweeted on Friday an admonition against Americans self-medicating without their doctors’ advice.

The state of Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency said in a tweet on Friday that it had “received several calls regarding questions about disinfectant use and Covid-10.”

“This is a reminder that under no circumstances should any disinfectant product be administered into the body through injection, ingestion or any other route,” the agency said.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a tweet Friday that household cleaners and disinfectants “can cause health problems when not used properly.”

Something There’

Trump views the daily White House briefings as an opportunity to share his optimistic view of the U.S. effort against the virus and battle critics, according to a person familiar with the matter. That has included insulting and arguing with individual reporters, particularly those from news organizations such as CNN that he considers unfair.

The briefings also serve as an outlet for the president, who is no longer able to stage the boisterous political rallies that were the spine of both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, the person said.

But his frequent speaking appearances have also exposed his lack of preparedness. Trump rarely attends the White House coronavirus task force meetings that precede the briefings and does not typically rehearse his opening remarks, often reading them for the first time just minutes before he goes on air, the New York Times reported.

After his remarks about light and disinfectant on Thursday, a litany of scientists and doctors called the president’s suggestions dangerous. The maker of Lysol, Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc, issued a statement saying that “under no circumstance” should its disinfectant products be administered into the human body. The company said it felt obliged to issue a statement because it has a “responsibility in providing consumers with access to accurate, up-to-date information as advised by leading public health experts.”

In the Oval Office on Friday, Trump was invited to clarify his remarks. “I do think that disinfectant on the hands could have a very good effect,” he said, adding that he’d like the government to research the effect of sunlight, heat and humidity on infected patients.

“Maybe there’s something that’s there,” Trump said. “They have to work with the doctors. I’m not a doctor.”

2020 Bloomberg L.P.