The briefing room scene Wednesday was not an anomaly of togetherness. This is the White House routine in these unparalleled times.
When the world has been told to maintain six feet of personal space, the sight of these VIPs snuggled up next to one another is jarring. For a president skilled in stagecraft, it speaks volumes about his message — which is both self-centered and aggressively confident.
From his position at the center of this performance, he maintains his starring role. He holds focus wearing his navy suit and his bright red tie. His face ruddy; his eyelids not. For anyone watching from home, he is in the center of the television frame, but he is never alone in it. He is never depicted as a solitary leader — the sole responsible party. Instead, he’s the chief delegator and all the people behind him are the responsible ones, the possible scapegoats.
If this all goes to pot, these are the people to blame. If all goes well, he’s onstage for the applause.
The White House press corps — reduced in number so its members could be assigned to alternating seats, duly inspected by medical staff for any hint of a fever — lobs its questions from distance approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The president leans into the shared microphone. He grips the lectern with his bare hands — the same lectern upon which members of his team will place their notes and, upon occasion, their hands, too. The White House has reported that Trump tested negative for the coronavirus. But that doesn’t matter. Medical experts have warned: Behave as if you could have it, if not for yourself, then for the vulnerable.
So many in the public eye have recognized the need to model what that means. Celebrities have documented their self-distancing on social media with musician John Legend giving an at-home concert live on Instagram. CNN eliminated its usual on-set pileup of election coverage pundits and instead had an intimate panel spaced out around the table. Professional sports shut down. Businesses closed. But the commander in chief enjoys the reassuring embrace of a chorus during his regular briefings.
The press room is small. Space is a challenge. Still, task force members could stand off to the side until it’s their time to speak. Instead, they are gathered together within arm’s reach — all hands on deck.
Of course, folks need to hear what they have to say. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, discusses the postponement of elective surgeries. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper details how naval hospital ships will be deployed. And yes, everyone wants to hear from the medical professionals. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator, thanks reporters for their good questions, appeals to millennial vanity — we need your ability to see around corners — to persuade them to stay home and always emphasizes the data, the science and the curve.
While everyone else is suited up in standard-issue Capitol Hill attire, Birx has a warmer, more intimate style. Voluminous scarves wrap around her neck or her shoulders. Her hair is piled high in back. She likes earth tones and jewel tones, dresses and sweaters. Her manner is calm but concerned. She comes across as professional but also human. Those around her pull out their notes, their prepared statements, their governmental mandates. They announce. Birx talks.
The briefing is a public performance in which the style and the setting are as important as the content. Trump’s message has thankfully shifted from denial to action. Still, this huddle of humanity pulled in closely underscores what he does not want anyone to forget: This is not his fault. This “Chinese virus,” as he insists on calling this global pandemic, came from afar and ruined his beautiful economy.
In the minutes before Trump appeared for his Wednesday briefing, a similar one took place in Albany, N.Y. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was delivering his action plan for combating the virus. Earlier in the week, he had brought a giant jug of state-produced hand sanitizer to display for the cameras. This time, he brought a ventilator as a visual aid.
The governor was seated behind a table. Three of his colleagues were with him, but they were situated at some distance from him and from one another. So when the TV cameras framed Cuomo, he was alone. And if there was any visual message, it was that he was in charge. He was the guy getting it right, or possibly getting it wrong. Either way, he was your guy.
Standing on the small stage, Trump assumes the power position. He is elevated above his questioners. He recognizes them with a point of his finger. He calls a query he doesn’t like “nasty” and explains delayed U.S. testing with a complaint about having “inherited an obsolete system.” He gestures at a task force member and they step to the microphone. He hovers over them. Trump is at the center of it all as the cameras roll.
His power is clear. He has made sure of that. What remains fuzzy in that picture is: Who is ultimately responsible?