“Trump is flat out lying to the American people and right now our network and all networks should be cutting in to FactCheck him,” she wrote on Twitter. “If we’re going to carry these ridiculous briefings, we need to give it context and we need to fact check a President who has trouble with the truth.”
As it turned out, MSNBC did cut away after Trump left the lectern, before returning the White House again as other members of the coronavirus task force spoke.
But the back-and-forth nature of live briefing coverage speaks to how vexing it has become for news networks — the desire to cover the president live in the middle of a national crisis, but the pressure on them to also give context and clarification. Earlier on Tuesday, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said that he told MSNBC that he no longer would appear on the network as long as they continued to air the briefings, and he urged other guests to do the same.
CNN covered Trump’s opening remarks and his Q&A with reporters. Then, after Trump exited the room, they went back to the studio, where chief national correspondent John King and reporter Daniel Dale tried to sift through some of his statements, to the point where King said that Trump was trying to spin some revisionist history.
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On Tuesday, there were many claims. Trump contended that he did not see a January memo from adviser Peter Navarro that warned of a pandemic, but that he “basically did” what it suggested anyway by restricting travel from China. His move to cut off the Chinese from coming to the United States has become a central defense for the Trump team against attacks that he didn’t take the threat seriously. And he claimed that his statements throughout February, when he downplayed the threat of the virus, was because he is a “cheerleader” for the country.
“In late January, in late February, when some people were sounding the alarm, the president did, he’s right, he did shut down travel from China,” King said on CNN. “But he did not ramp up testing. …He always blames Obama. ‘The shelves were empty.’ Well, if that’s the case, he had 38 months to buy. He says he’s now blaming Obama for lack of testing. It’s a novel coronavirus. The Obama administration could not have developed a test for a virus that did not exist at the time.”
On MSNBC, Ari Melber also attempted to pick through some of Trump’s claims, including that no one could have imagined that the virus would have posed such a great threat, at least one enough to shut down the economy and cause more than 10,000 deaths so far. “Yeah, who could have imagined something like this could have happened? Well, the White House imagined that this could happen. It just didn’t trigger the kind of action that we eventually saw in March,” said one of Melber’s guests, Peter Baker of The New York Times.
Another guest, Dr. Irwin Redlener, noted that Time magazine ran a cover story in 2017 on the pandemic and “how ill prepared the United States was.”
Trump did cast blame at the World Health Organization — which on Jan. 14 tweeted information from Chinese officials that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” — and then alternately told reporters that the U.S. would put a hold on funding to the group and that they are merely looking at doing so.
With such a fusillade of Trump statements, reporters sitting in on the briefings have tried to fact-check the president in real time — but that has been a challenge.
On Tuesday, Trump criticized the ultimately failed effort in Wisconsin to postpone the primary and shift to a vote-by-mail in election, calling such a method “corrupt.”
Later, though, NBC News’ Carol Lee noted that Trump himself cast a ballot by mail in Florida’s primary last month.
“How do you reconcile that?” she asked Trump.
“Because I am allowed to,” he responded. “That is called out of state. You know why I voted? Because I happened to be in the White House.”
Instead, he insisted that people “should go and you should vote,” Trump said, without more fully addressing one of the central issues of the Tuesday primary, in which voters are going to the polls in the midst of a pandemic when they are otherwise being told to stay at home.
In real time, there is only so much that reporters can do to follow up in their questions of the president.
For instance, as he talked of the Wisconsin primary, Trump commented on some of the images from state on Tuesday, with long lines of voters who were still practicing social distancing. But he suggested that the lines were triggered by his endorsement state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly — “I hear the lines are through the roof” — even though it’s far more likely that it is because many polling locations have been cut back because of the lack of poll workers due to the coronavirus.
As he usually does at every briefing, Trump got in a dig at the media. He said that after he put in place Chinese travel restrictions, “I was called names by some of the morning show hosts who don’t have a clue what they are talking about. They are not smart people. …Now they try and hide the tape of them saying terrible things.”
No one asked who, precisely, Trump was talking about. But last week Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough said, “The fact is, everybody saw this coming. Everybody saw this coming in early January.” In turn, Scarborough’s remark got its own share of fact-checking in conservative media.