David Axelrod: Try as he might, Trump can't spin the pandemic

CNN's Jake Tapper responds to President Donald Trump's reactions to journalists who ask questions he does not like during press briefings about the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Posted: Apr 13, 2020 12:21 PM
Updated: Apr 13, 2020 12:21 PM

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has had an interesting relationship with President Donald Trump. Longtime friends, who ran against each other for president in 2016, Christie was the first major elected official to endorse Trump shortly after the then-governor of New Jersey dropped out of the race.

So, when I sat down with Christie (virtually, of course) for the latest episode of "The Axe Files" podcast, I asked him why the President was so insistent on downplaying the burgeoning threat of Covid-19 for six critical weeks and why the Trump Administration was so slow in responding.

"He always believes that by sheer force of will he can change circumstances," Christie told me. "And I think that he was like, 'OK, if I just go out there, talk this thing down, it'll come down.' I think that's what he felt at the beginning. And if he took certain steps like closing travel from China, which he did early on -- one of the real aggressive things he did early; one of the only aggressive things he did early -- I think he thought he could do it.

"I think what he's learned in this circumstance is there are some things when you're President of the United States that are beyond your own will to fix."

Christie, who was driven out as Trump's transition director days after the election in an out-of-the-blue dismissal he says was engineered by the President's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, also blamed the absence of a strong and experienced White House staff for the delays and early mistakes that set the country back in its efforts to blunt the assault of the coronavirus. He painted the portrait of an insular palace guard who has prevented the President from getting the blunt advice he needs and will trust.

"In the end, you need a lot of people to deal with a crisis like this. And if you're doing it right, you have to delegate authority and trust them. And I think that the President's been ill-served in that regard."

After dismissing the severity of the threat until mid-March, the president took a U-Turn and assumed the mantle of wartime leader—taking the lead role at daily briefings, carried live in all or part on cable news networks. There is no doubt that this President delights in an audience, the bigger the better. It's ostensibly one of the reasons he has been so reluctant to cede the stage at these daily events, the starting time of which he now heralds each day by Tweet. Last Friday's briefing, which ran for over two hours, seemed for a while as if it might stretch all the way to Easter Sunday.

Even in the midst of an epic crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions, Trump simply cannot refrain from boasting about the enormous TV audience his marathon Covid-19 briefings have commanded.

Notwithstanding the fact that anxious people are tuning in for news about the virus, what Americans often get is an orgy of lies, distortions, score-settling and self-praise that may do Trump more harm than good.

Christie says he's urged the President to curb these appearances.

"What I've advised him to do is to spend a little less time out there because nothing good can happen after about a half an hour," Christie told me. "One of the things I've advised him, and he's done it on occasion ... is to speak off the top, take a few questions off the top, then leave the vice president and the experts to take care of the rest of it ... because if you're off stage, they're going to ask those people substantive questions. If you're on stage, they're going to ask you questions that go all over the place."

Yet Christie says Trump's uncontrollable penchant to brandish the ratings of his pandemic briefings is only natural for a president who built his following as a reality show star.

"A lot of the way he judged his success or failure on his television show, as [is true] with most of the people who participate in that world, is by their ratings. Let's face it, that was a major part of his career for the 10 years before he decided to run for president."

And, once again, Christie blamed the absence of a strong and trusted staff to persuade the President to change his approach.

"Part of what you need to do, if you had a more experienced and more aggressive staff, is you try to prevent the principal from putting himself in positions where those less attractive parts of their character are shown. ... And I think again, here, with the exception of Kellyanne Conway, I don't think there's anybody in that circle who has both the experience and the type of relationship with the President where they could tell him, no, you shouldn't be doing this."

Christie, now an ABC commentator, still talks with Trump, and his insights into the President were candid and plausible. But they also beg a larger question.

Every organization reflects the person on top. Donald Trump's staff reflects him. More hard-nosed and experienced staffers are long gone, either expelled for their candor or worn down by the mercurial policy shifts and bombast of a president who insists he has all the metrics he needs between his ears to make fateful decisions. Smarter than the generals, smarter than the public health experts, he runs the show.

Just watch the energy that doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, both experts in their fields, have expended in navigating the President's mind-boggling pronouncements, even as they battle heroically to stop the surge of Covid-19. Their restraint is as admirable as their dedication and rigor. And one can only hope that the virus is subdued before they run afoul of the commander-in-chief.

The presidency exposes anyone who occupies the Oval Office, particularly in times of crisis.

The problem is that we have a reality show president who has run headlong into a grim reality for which he was ill-equipped and unprepared. You can't spin a pandemic, Mr. President. And the numbers that matter aren't your TV ratings.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1112735

Reported Deaths: 17652
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1450832237
Lake721711247
Allen66684881
Hamilton50838487
St. Joseph49493645
Elkhart40079546
Vanderburgh34553496
Tippecanoe30654274
Johnson27559465
Hendricks26181383
Porter25556386
Madison21002452
Clark20146278
Vigo18966309
LaPorte17115261
Delaware16666300
Howard16666313
Monroe16556220
Kosciusko14216167
Hancock13061185
Bartholomew12894190
Warrick12152190
Wayne12036268
Floyd11968226
Grant11901242
Morgan10360192
Boone9815122
Noble9234122
Henry9142167
Marshall9062147
Dearborn8923100
Dubois8815139
Shelby8210129
Cass8134127
Lawrence8018185
DeKalb7761108
Jackson764093
Huntington7601113
Gibson7074118
Montgomery7052123
Harrison6923100
Knox6896115
Steuben665889
Miami6563111
Whitley655360
Putnam641584
Clinton624579
Wabash6182111
Jasper610892
Jefferson5796104
Ripley555893
Adams540581
Daviess5062117
Scott488280
Wells4814104
White475669
Greene4680100
Clay462862
Decatur4597110
Jennings448867
Fayette448396
LaGrange425990
Posey407544
Randolph3908107
Washington389856
Fountain373464
Fulton362474
Spencer360747
Starke353574
Owen351277
Sullivan347554
Orange329172
Jay328850
Rush306832
Carroll294239
Franklin290844
Perry288553
Vermillion282758
Tipton250066
Parke249630
Pike247244
Blackford221244
Pulaski208559
Newton181752
Brown176150
Crawford168829
Benton166517
Martin151820
Switzerland147212
Warren135316
Union121016
Ohio92113
Unassigned0592

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1708292

Reported Deaths: 26587
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1785651827
Cuyahoga1669492640
Hamilton1132851528
Montgomery801921395
Summit715401199
Lucas627081020
Butler56598805
Stark535121171
Lorain41895642
Warren35785412
Mahoning35635771
Lake32124495
Clermont31120363
Trumbull27130616
Delaware27046182
Licking26528336
Medina25825351
Fairfield24511287
Greene24265372
Clark21980387
Portage21117281
Richland20947340
Wood20015246
Allen18870320
Miami17196348
Columbiana16795332
Muskingum16644206
Wayne15664306
Tuscarawas14329360
Marion13250194
Ashtabula12618232
Erie12602198
Scioto12416184
Pickaway12208153
Ross11639225
Hancock11448173
Geauga10863175
Lawrence10617172
Belmont10416234
Huron9765158
Jefferson9601227
Union954075
Sandusky9272166
Seneca8853157
Knox8761170
Washington8675158
Darke8365180
Athens835396
Ashland7956149
Auglaize7897117
Shelby7459133
Defiance7331115
Crawford7233150
Fulton7167112
Brown7135115
Logan6975108
Guernsey691484
Mercer689998
Highland6718119
Clinton6493106
Madison648089
Williams645199
Preble6243140
Putnam6220120
Jackson578896
Champaign578487
Perry564979
Coshocton5623104
Ottawa561999
Morrow515264
Fayette492170
Hardin485999
Gallia469678
Van Wert465693
Pike463476
Adams4569109
Henry432378
Hocking407193
Holmes3989140
Wyandot374973
Carroll363978
Paulding323851
Meigs304959
Monroe235561
Noble219647
Morgan215238
Harrison210953
Vinton186937
Unassigned06
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