First things first: Donald Trump is not going to "pivot." Yes, on Tuesday he stood at a podium and, in stiff and sulky fashion, said words that, as written, were relatively serious and realistic. He admitted the coronavirus pandemic will "get worse before it gets better." He also claimed that his administration is "developing a strategy" to combat the pandemic, after months of foisting it off on the states and then lambasting any state that tried to take serious measures, while rewarding governors who pushed to reopen businesses and damn the consequences. He said he'd wear a mask now, after months of implying that only soy-boys and wieners wear masks.
These are all words that Trump said. But they don't mean anything. As Dan Rather sagely observed on Twitter, Trump "does not pivot" and whatever temporary behavior we see on display, he will always, always, always revert to being "who he is, and always has been," which is to say a rancid monster with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Unfortunately, much of the media coverage gave an entirely different impression, presenting Trump's performance at Tuesday's press briefing as if it represented a real shift, and seeding the absolutely false hope that Trump might actually start doing something to fight the coronavirus, instead of acting like the coronavirus's biggest champion.
"Trump, in a Shift, Endorses Masks and Says Virus Will Get Worse," reads the headline at the New York Times.
"Pandemic likely to 'get worse before it gets better,' Trump says in somber return to coronavirus briefing," the Washington Post headline read.
"Trump changes course as COVID-19 response faces critical tests," claims an ABC News analysis.
The Reuters tweet on the press conference declared, "President Trump, in a shift in rhetoric and tone, encouraged Americans to wear masks."
White House staff, eager to push this "pivot" narrative, ran to CNN and anonymously assured reporters that Trump has "relented" and they have successfully "linked wearing a mask to political success."
We've been down this road dozens of times before: Trump, facing bad press, sucks it up and, with the posture of a kid being dragged to the dentist, feigns being presidential for a few minutes. Then, with the predictability of a clock, he gets sick of all this "acting respectable" nonsense and goes right back to his preferred mode: vitriol, incompetence and asserting that everything is "great" no matter how bad it gets.
We've even been through this cycle with the coronavirus pandemic. In late March and early April, the press fell all over praising Trump for his "new tone" and for being "grave, sober, grim, realistic" in the face of the fast-rising caseload.
Trump's sober-mindedness was as brief as a mosquito's mating season, however, and by the middle of April, he was encouraging protests against coronavirus precautions, demanding that Democratic governors and legislators "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA" and so on. He heavily and successfully pressured red-state governors to reopen prematurely and without much of a plan — which is the primary reason for our nationwide soaring coronavirus rates — and justified it with false claims that hydroxychloroquine was some kind of miracle cure, which it definitely is not.
Three weeks after Trump's former "new tone," he went on TV during one of his so-called briefings and suggested that injecting household disinfectants into people's lungs was a possible miracle cure for COVID-19, and that maybe actual medical researchers weren't smart enough to have thought of it yet, unlike his good-brained self. The result was widespread mockery and Trump, his ego bruised, ended the coronavirus briefings and dove ever deeper into conspiracy theories that the whole thing is a hoax invented by liberals to hurt his re-election chances. So that's how that "pivot" ended.
Indeed, there's no reason to think that Trump's words on Tuesday will be reflected in anything resembling action. Despite his claims that there's a new "strategy" in development, the White House has actually been trying to defund the already-failing coronavirus testing system and force hospitals to report cases to a mysterious data collection service within the Department of Health and Human Services, instead of directly to the CDC. The purpose of all this, of course, is to hide the numbers and hope that tricks the public into thinking Trump has the coronavirus problem licked. (Or that it never existed in the first place. Whichever!)
It's no mystery what's going on here: Trump demoted campaign manager Brad Parscale last week and hired a new one, former White House political director Bill Stepien. As often happens with the revolving door in TrumpWorld, new hires try to rein Trump in a little, coaxing him to pretend to be a normal human being who experiences emotions like empathy and concern for others. The act never lasts. Trump always lashes out shortly after one of these "pivots," often saying something especially odious, a man gleefully throwing off the shackles of having to pretend to have any pro-social impulses at all.
This is, after all, the Donald Trump whose father used to tell reporters, "Donald is the smartest person I know" and that "everything he touches seems to turn to gold." Trump believed his dear old dad's hype, and has repeatedly asserted that he is the world's greatest living expert in every topic under the sun, and that, unlike other experts who know stuff because they learned it, he sprung into the world knowing everything about everything and has nothing to learn from anyone.
So it's just a matter of time until Trump, whose weary tone Tuesday made clear he was feeling restrained, decides he knows better than all these "experts" about what the public wants to hear, and goes straight back to his comfort zone: Conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and ridiculously out-of-touch claims about how well the administration is doing and how everything is "great" and "perfect" and "brilliant."
Remember, it was literally just last weekend that Trump, using the same kinds of lies he he used for years to mislead real estate investors, told Chris Wallace of Fox News that the U.S. has "one of the lowest mortality rates in the world" (it's actually among the highest), that our death rate is going down (it's been climbing for several weeks and just reached 1,000 a day), and that he was right to claim, as he did over and over again throughout the spring, that the virus would just "disappear" one day (needless to say, that's not how this works).
Whatever Trump's aides wrote on a piece of paper and had him read out loud is not what Trump wants to say — and he is incapable of keeping his feelings to himself, due to his addiction to attention and his absolute certainty that he knows better than everyone else. And what Trump really wants to say is not a mystery: Real men don't wear masks, the virus is being overhyped as a plot against him, and he can bamboozle people into believing everything is fine simply by declaring it so.
Indeed, the shape of the press conference showed that Trump's aides know he can only be contained for short periods of time. The briefing was tightly constrained and Trump stuck to written statements. He started to take questions, and pretty quickly the real Trump peeked out. He was asked about Ghislaine Maxwell — the former partner of his old buddy Jeffrey Epstein — who was recently been arrested for her alleged role in child sex trafficking. He responded, "I wish her well, frankly."
A few minutes later, Trump, likely realizing his aides might be annoyed with that disturbing answer, abruptly wrapped up the press conference. Most likely he'd been told to cut it short and not open himself up to the inevitable humiliation of talking off the cuff, and, as he does when he's trying to "pivot," he took the advice for a moment.
To be fair, many of the articles under those headlines trumpeting Trump's "shift" noted, several paragraphs down, that Trump has tried to pivot before, and always regresses to his usual self. But that sort of nuance gets lost in a world where most news consumers rarely read past the first few paragraphs and many only scan the headlines.
Perhaps it's foolish to expect mainstream news outlets to get smarter about how they cover Trump, just as it's foolish of such journalists to expect Trump to get smarter, listen to his aides and start acting more presidential. But Trump is a deeply disturbed man who likely suffers from a personality disorder that makes growing, learning or changing impossible. Mainstream journalists, whose job is literally to learn things so they can boil down their knowledge for the general public, can and should do better. Listen to Dan Rather. Trump is not going to pivot. He cannot do it. Stop falling for these stunts and focus on reporting the real news.