In Daily Coronavirus Briefing, Trump Tries to Redefine Himself

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s campaign rallies have been canceled for the foreseeable future. His noisy back-and-forths with reporters on the South Lawn, half drowned out by the whir of Marine One behind him, have also disappeared.

And with almost no meetings or foreign leaders visiting the Oval Office, Mr. Trump can no longer invite the news media to view him at work — photo ops that doubled as chances for him to engage in impromptu question-and-answer sessions with the news media that he could end on his own terms.

Instead, Mr. Trump, who has always scripted his presidency like a reality show, has found his new favorite stage: the dust-covered briefing room, unused for months since Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his previous press secretary, ended daily sessions with reporters. Now, the briefings offer him a unique perch from which he can try to rebrand himself as a “wartime president” and demonstrate his focus on a pandemic he only weeks ago dismissed.

The regular briefings by the administration’s coronavirus task force were originally run by Vice President Mike Pence with the purpose of transmitting to a scared public important health information that could help flatten the curve.

“Washing your hands with hot soap and water, 20 seconds, is just as good as any lotion you can buy,” Mr. Pence said at a briefing this month, the kind of direction he often gave with a paternally calm presence.

But without any of Mr. Trump’s usual outlets available, and competitive as he watched Mr. Pence get good marks for how he handled the White House response, the president has taken over the briefing himself, using it as a venue not just to talk about the virus but to vent his grievances against the news media and tout what he claims is his own stellar job performance.

And he has repeatedly made inaccurate claims about everything from the availability of testing kits and face masks to the timeline for a coronavirus vaccine that task force members standing behind him have sometimes felt compelled to later correct.

As Mr. Trump has attacked critics and conveyed false information, cable networks have been criticized for carrying his briefings live and in their entirety; they often last for up to 90 minutes, about the same length as a Trump rally. On Sunday, for instance, Mr. Trump couldn’t resist a scornful aside when a reporter noted that Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the sole Republican who voted to impeach him on one count, was quarantined.

“Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad,” Mr. Trump said sarcastically.

The experts behind him often try to convey no reaction or emotion on their faces as the president riffs, and they wait their turns to convey more details and information.

The journalist James Fallows noted on Twitter that the cable networks were “repeating the mistake they made w wall-to-wall coverage of rallies in 2015 and 2016. W/o live coverage, Trump will stop showing up; scientists can speak.”

And public health experts have questioned the kind of example set by packing clusters of officials into a small space that does not allow for the 6-foot-apart spacing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I keep saying, is there any way we can get a virtual news conference,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the briefing regulars, said in an interview with Science magazine. “Thus far, no. But when you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So I’m going to keep pushing.”

The White House disputed Dr. Fauci’s assertion that he had lobbied for another setup. “I’ve never heard anyone suggest doing a virtual briefing,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.

The dangers of the current setup became apparent on Monday, when the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Jonathan Karl of ABC News, said a journalist who had been at the White House as recently as March 18 had a “suspected case of Covid-19.” Mr. Karl said that in response, the W.H.C.A. was switching to “expanded pool” coverage of the briefings, which shrunk the number of reporters allowed in the briefing room to 14 from 25. It also raised the question of how much longer Mr. Trump would continue.

Dr. Fauci’s critique resonated with Mr. Trump’s allies as well as his detractors. Sean Spicer, a former White House press secretary who during his tenure instituted “Skype seats” to allow smaller outlets without a Washington-based correspondent to ask questions during his briefings, said the idea still made sense.

Mr. Spicer, who attended a briefing last week in his new role as a host on the conservative site Newsmax and was called on by Mr. Trump, said “safety should be a massive factor” for the current format.

David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, said accurate briefings during a crisis like the pandemic were critical. But he said the current state of play at the White House failed not only in accuracy but in optics.

“Not only is it unhealthy for the people in the room,” Mr. Axelrod said, “it sends a mixed message to the American people. Even if the briefings were held in the East or State Rooms, where people could be spaced, it would be better.”

Aides said Mr. Trump viewed the iconic room, with its blue seats and imposing White House seal behind the podium, as his best stage, one that gives him an imprimatur that cannot be replicated by any of his Democratic presidential opponents or governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York.

Mr. Cuomo has received high marks for an informative and emotional daily briefing he has been delivering from the State Capitol in Albany, which the president has closely watched and studied.

Some Trump advisers have struggled to find a good slot for the timing of the president’s briefings. Their preference would be to hold them earlier in the day, but Mr. Trump prefers getting closer to prime-time hours, and Mr. Cuomo’s briefings already dominate the mornings.

The format for the briefing has taken shape somewhat organically after the president studied Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Pence.

It takes place immediately after the president has met with members of the task force, although at times Mr. Trump has sought to push it back for a better time slot. Aides put together what they refer to as a topper: a brief written statement that Mr. Trump reads before transitioning into his more comfortable, freelancing mode.

Mr. Trump does not rehearse, aides said, and it shows. He often reads from a binder in front of him with little effect, sometimes tripping on the words as if he has not yet reviewed them. Sometimes, he adds his own edits to the draft printed out for him in large type by his advisers. Last week, a Washington Post photographer captured an image that showed that Mr. Trump had crossed out the word “corona” and replaced it in his signature Sharpie with “Chinese” virus.

Dr. Fauci, in his interview with Science, described what has become the daily routine: “We go in to see the president, we present [our consensus] to him and somebody writes a speech. Then he gets up and ad-libs on his speech. And then we’re up there to try and answer questions.”

White House officials said the more conversational style of the briefing room worked better for Mr. Trump than a formal Oval Office address, like the one he gave this month that was rife with inaccuracies and widely considered a disaster even inside the West Wing.

Mr. Trump has been enlivened by the briefings, his aides said. While Mr. Cuomo has limited the number of administration officials who can attend his daily briefing to those who are directly involved in the coronavirus response, Mr. Trump has been eager for a live audience.

Last week, he asked his daughter Ivanka Trump, who has no role in the administration’s response to the coronavirus and does not sit on its task force, to sit and watch the briefing. Her silent presence in a chair to the side confused reporters.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.