On Tuesday, Donald Trump won widespread applause in the mainstream media for a briefing where he offered kind thoughts to a woman accused of running one of the most horrifying child rape networks in human history. Trump was asked about Ghislaine Maxwell, arrested earlier this month for her alleged assistance in procuring underage girls for the late Jeffrey Epstein, who died in jail last year. Trump had long-standing social ties with both Epstein and Maxwell. In 2002 he told New York magazine Epstein was “a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Answering a question about whether he thought Maxwell would turn in powerful men who might also be guilty of sex crimes, Trump said, “I wish her well, frankly. I’ve met her numerous times over the years, especially since I lived in Palm Beach, and I guess they lived in Palm Beach. But I wish her well, whatever it is.”
These bizarre comments were matched by others equally strange in a briefing devoted to the Covid-19 pandemic. Repeatedly, Trump referred to Covid-19 as “the China virus.” At one point he said, “The median age of those who succumb to the China virus is 78 years old.” This remark combined xenophobia with an implicit downplaying of the seriousness of the virus. The argument that the Covid-19 victims are overwhelmingly old people is often trotted out by those who oppose taking drastic measures to slow down the pandemic.
There were a few decent points in the briefing. He did endorse mask wearing, albeit half-heartedly. And he acknowledged that the pandemic is likely to get worse before it gets better. But he also repeated his oft-stated conviction that “the virus will disappear.” Further, he contradicted his own press secretary’s claim that he took several Covid-19 tests every day.
All in all, it was a typical Trump performance of glib bravado hiding a lack of policy knowledge. Yet it won praise from an array of outlets, all united in the view that Trump had pivoted to a more serious and sober engagement with Covid-19.
Trip Gabriel of The New York Times tweeted, “And the Trump virus briefing wrapped up after just about 35 minutes. POTUS seems to have absorbed—for now—that he needs a major reboot to save his campaign. His tone was sober, he acknowledged the need for masks, that things will get worse before they get better.”
Reuters described the briefing as showing “a shift in rhetoric and tone.” According to The Washington Post, Trump spoke in “subdued tones” and took a “somber approach.” The Daily Show compiled a small anthology of clips showing an array of cable news hosts making the same argument. On MSNB, Chuck Todd said we were seeing “perhaps a bit more reserved version of President Trump.” On CNN, Wolf Blitzer said there was “a different tone coming from the president today.”
The media commendation of Trump completely ignored the many outlandish and outright strange things Trump actually said. The widespread consensus praising Trump even after his well wishes for Maxwell shows that Trump is still being graded on a steep curve. Words that might be scandalous if spoken by another politician are ignored or treated gently when they come from Trump.
This tendency to whitewash Trump dates back to his victory in 2016 and perhaps a bit earlier to his win of the Republican primary. The mainstream news media in America remains committed to a code of reporting where the highest goal is to be equidistant between the two major political parties. The aim is to report on both sides in as neutral a manner as possible.
Further, the mainstream media is traditionally deferential to the president. This is a byproduct of the monarchal position the presidency occupies in the American political system and the popular imagination. The president is both the head of government and the representative of the state. As head of state, the president is an embodiment of the nation itself.
The fact that Trump is a racist buffoon has tested the limits of both-sides journalism and deference to the presidency. The secret hope of many in the media has been that Trump would somehow transform himself into a normal president, so they could treat him with the deference due someone who is both the standard-bearer of a major party and the embodiment of the American state.
In 2017, after Trump paid homage to the widow of a Navy SEAL in an address to Congress, CNN commentator Van Jones said, “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.” Van Jones was expressing a fond fantasy of many in the media, that Trump would put away his childish and embarrassing ways so they could abandon the clearly unwelcome and unfamiliar role of critics or opponents of the president.
But Trump is clearly incapable of fulfilling the symbolic presidential duty to act as a unifying head of state. He is simply too self-centered, too boastful, too aggrieved, and too paranoid. Trump can never pivot to being president, let alone to being sober. The media’s inability to acknowledge this simple fact shows the power both-sides pseudo-objectivity still has over the press—as well as the strong deference the presidency still commands.
This is actually the second time around for the narrative that Trump is finally taking Covid-19 seriously. On March 17, the Associated Press, reporting on an earlier briefing, claimed, “After weeks of trying to play down the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump struck a more urgent tone Monday as he delivered a sobering message to Americans grappling with a new reality that will dramatically alter their lives for months to come.”
But that sobriety didn’t last very long. Trump was soon speculating on the use of bleach as a cure for Covid-19. Trump has done nothing since to show he deserves a second chance.
Trump will never change. He is who he is. It’s not partisan to recognize this truth. It’s a simple acknowledgement of reality.