CNN and MSNBC cut away from Donald Trump’s coronavirus press briefing on Monday, with anchors protesting that the White House was using the time to air a campaign-style “propaganda” video to defend and praise the president’s response to the crisis.
“We are going to avoid airing any more of this White House briefing until it returns to what it was supposed to be, which was the Coronavirus Task Force briefing providing medical information,” said Ari Melber on MSNBC, who called the video “some kind of backward looking edited video propaganda.”
On CNN, John King said, “To play a propaganda video at taxpayer expense in the White House briefing room is a new — you can insert your favorite word here in this administration.”
MSNBC aired the complete video before breaking away; CNN cut away earlier. They eventually returned to the briefing as Trump took questions from reporters.
The video appeared to have been motivated by a New York Times report over the weekend — He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure On the Virus. Trump sent out multiple tweets throughout Sunday bashing the Times for the report. Trump has defended his response, pointing to his decision in late January to impose restrictions on travel from China, where the outbreak started. But critics say that the response required much more aggressive steps, like a ramp-up of testing.
The video featured clips that tried to highlight where Trump took decisive action during the crisis, as well as quotes of praise for his response coming from political figures such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom. But the clips were cherry picked. They did not include moments in January and February where the president downplayed the threat of the virus. The video also attacked media reporting on the virus, pointing to instances where outlets also played down its potential fallout. That has been a main talking point of some of Trump’s staunchest media defenders on the right. According to Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, clips in the video mirrored those that Fox News’ Sean Hannity showed on March 26.
After CNN cut away from the briefing, John King ran through a list of dates where Trump minimized the impact of the virus, including a CNBC interview on Jan. 22 when he said that it would not become a pandemic, and on Feb. 26, when he said, “This is the flu. This is like the flu.”
“I could go on and on … with other things the president has said,” King said. “Again, he has every right to defend himself. He has every right to push back. He has every right to challenge things that are factually not true.” But he said that “there are ways to do things,” but what the White House showed was “just plain propaganda.”
After explaining why MSNBC cut away, Melber interviewed Howell Raines, the former executive editor of The New York Times, who said, “I think this is one of the astonishing acts of disinformation we’ve seen from a White House since the Vietnam era and the 5 o’clock follies of the Lyndon Johnson administration.”
After the video was shown in the briefing room, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jon Karl asked Trump why he felt he had to put a campaign-style video together.
“Because we’re getting fake news and I like to have it corrected,” Trump responded.
The video, Trump said, was put together by Dan Scavino, the White House’s social media director.
Trump sparred with CBS News White House correspondent Paula Reid, who pressed him on what the administration did through the month of February.
“The entire month of February, your video has a complete gap,” she said. “What did your administration do in February in the time that your travel ban bought you?”
“We did a lot,” Trump responded, before telling her, “Look, you know you’re a fake. You know that the whole network, the way you cover it is fake.” He also called her “disgraceful.”
The atmosphere in the briefing room got so contentious that Ari Fleischer, press secretary under President George W. Bush, tweeted, “I’m getting ready to duck. I think someone is about to start throwing empty bottles and a brawl is going to break out.”
Later, when Trump was asked about governors who are joining together to decide when to lift stay-at home orders in their states, the president pushed back, insisting that it will be his decision on when to “reopen” the country.
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said. “And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”
The quote immediately stood out among all others on Monday, to the point where CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pressed him on his remark that he had “total” authority. “That is not true. Who told you that?” After she continued to ask questions, he said, “Enough.”
The networks have been under pressure to not carry the briefings live, as critics have argued that they have allowed Trump to make misleading and unverified claims or convey what is essentially campaign propaganda. Fox News has generally carried the nightly briefings live, but CNN and MSNBC have tried to cut in and out of the White House feed to fact check some of the claims or to break away when they veer from the topic of the coronavirus crisis.
During the briefing, Trump multiple times claimed that Joe Biden, his now near certain rival in the fall, called his travel ban “xenophobic.” But Politifact rated Trump’s claim “mostly false.”
Even so, some on-air figures still are critical of the extent to which the networks carry the briefings. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe tweeted on Monday, ” “Did you learn anything new—ANY news—from the President during that two hour press conference? Not a SINGLE word on the suffering and deaths of Americans. Instead, a taxpayer funded campaign ad. Outrageous that the networks are still taking these press conferences.”
Later, CNN responded to the White House video by posting a listing of its reporting on the coronavirus in January and February, countering claims that the media was ignoring the threat of the outbreak.
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