Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

Donald Trump's weak spot is the facts — reporters must keep pressing him

Trump's bitter sniping at even the mildest factual challenge exposes his leadership act as a sham. Keep pushing!



Dan Froomkin
April 8, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

It was amazing to watch just how upset Donald Trump got on Monday night when reporters asked him about a new, fact-filled report about how hospitals across the nation have been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

The report, from the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general's office, was a summary of brief telephone interviews with 323 hospital administrators from across the country during the last week of March. It was intended purely to provide HHS officials "and other decision-makers" with "a national snapshot of hospitals' challenges and needs."

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Its chief finding was that many hospitals reported severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results, which limited their ability to monitor the health of patients and staff and have severely strained hospital beds, personal protective equipment and staffing.

This wasn't a critique of anything or anyone. It was just a reality check.

That was exactly why it sent Trump into a sputtering rage, lashing out at imagined enemies and mocking the very notion that anyone he didn't appoint should be in a position to hold him accountable.

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Ironically, the initial question during Monday's news conference came from Fox News reporter Kristin Fisher. In case you missed it, the exchange is worth reading or watching in its entirety.

Trump interrupted Fisher's question before she was even done, mocking its source. "Did I hear the word 'inspector general'? Really? It's wrong."

Fisher returned to the issue later.

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Fisher: I know you don't want to talk about the inspector general report, but testing is still a big issue in this country. When can hospitals expect?…. When can hospitals expect to receive a quick turnaround of its test results?

Trump: Are you ready? Are you ready? Hospitals can do their own testing also. States can do their own testing. States, they're supposed to be doing testing. Hospitals are opposed to be doing testing. Do you understand that? We're the federal government. Listen, we're the federal government. We're not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing. They go to doctors, they go to hospitals, they go to the state. The state is a more localized government. You have 50 of them and they can go … you also have territories as you know …

We have a brand new testing system that we developed very quickly and that's your result. And you should say, "Congratulations, great job." Instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.

In reality, not only is the rate of testing per capita in the U.S. well below that of many other countries, it needs to be magnitudes larger if the nation is ever to return to anything remotely like normalcy.

Trump also lashed out at ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl with bitter sarcasm, accusing him of hiding the fact that the report was issued by someone Trump didn't appoint — in this case, by Christi Grimm, a 21-year veteran of the office who was appointed principal deputy inspector general in January 2017. Trump never got around to nominating anyone to replace the previous inspector general, who resigned in June 2019.

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Trump: How long has that person been in government?

Karl: They did serve in the previous administration.

Trump: Oh, you didn't tell me that. Oh, I see. You didn't tell me that, Jon. You didn't tell me that. Did serve in the previous admin. You mean the Obama administration? Thank you for telling me that. See, there's a typical fake news deal.

Karl: You asked me when she was appointed, I told you when she was appointed.

Trump: You're a third-rate reporter and what you just said is a disgrace, OK? You asked me, you said, "Sir, just got appointed." Take a look at what you said now. I said, "When did this person, how long in government?" Well, it was appointed in the Obama administration. Thank you very much, Jon. Thank you very much. You will never make it.

On Tuesday morning, Trump was still going, tweeting:

CNN's Stephen Collinson got it exactly right when he wrote:

President Donald Trump's contempt for science and disdain for experts who question his political narratives are driving his increasingly defensive and brittle management of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump was short-tempered and rude during much of his daily briefing on Monday as he refused to even listen to questions about shortcomings in the federal government effort.

Collinson continued:

[Trump's] feuds with reporters on other issues Monday underscored his wider reluctance to allow inconvenient evidence to mar his cultivated picture of hugely successful leadership amid the worst domestic crisis since World War II ….

One reason why Trump appeared to be flailing in recent news conferences may be that his political approach — based on denying robust fact-based evidence — is being badly exposed.

Also on the CNN website, Tara Subramaniam, Daniel Dale, Lauren Fox, Priscilla Alvarez and Holmes Lybrand wrote:

There's no evidence to suggest anything about the report is wrong, or that it was somehow politically motivated.

I've written before that Trump's daily appearances shouldn't be widely broadcast live, and should be annotated so that journalists can put what he says in context as he speaks.

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I wrote on Monday that rather than asking incremental questions, reporters who attend should at least ask Trump big questions such as: What's the plan? When will it be safe to go out again? How will we know?

But there's also some value in simply confronting Trump with the facts and watching him explode in fury, attacking the questioner, attacking the source, blaming others and generally refusing to take any responsibility for what's actually going on. The facts are his greatest enemy, and the public needs to understand that.

As Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller wrote in their devastating Washington Post overview of Trump's failed response over the weekend:

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He has survived other challenges to his presidency — including the Russia investigation and impeachment — by fiercely contesting the facts arrayed against him and trying to control the public's understanding of events with streams of falsehoods.

The coronavirus may be the first crisis Trump has faced in office where the facts — the thousands of mounting deaths and infections — are so devastatingly evident that they defy these tactics.


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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