At every briefing this week, the president took a question from a website dedicated to smearing his political rivals.
In an apparent effort to make his daily news conferences even more like campaign events than they already are, the White House press office has been packing the briefing room with supporters of President Donald Trump from far-right media outlets who can be relied on to toss him softball questions and initiate attacks on his political rivals.
Clearly in on the plot, Trump solicited a question each day this week from one of the guests invited by his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to stand at the back of the room — where representatives of One America News, The Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit compromised the health of reporters by violating social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.
On Monday, Trump called on Chanel Rion, a far-right Republican operative and conspiracy theorist now working as a correspondent for One America News, a San Diego cable channel dedicated to spreading lies about Joe Biden and elderly protesters battered by the police.
Rion gave Trump the opportunity to unleash a familiar riff from his pre-pandemic rallies by suggesting to him that Biden might have been considering President Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, as his running mate because, “she can best cover up a lot of the Obamagate surveillance crimes that have taken place during your campaign.” Trump responded by accusing Obama and Biden of “probably treason.”
The next day, Rion triggered another familiar Trump diatribe by asking for his take on the resignation of Carmen Best, the first Black woman to lead Seattle’s police force, after the city council voted to cut her department’s budget. “What does this say about our country?” Rion asked Trump. “And what does this say about the Defund Police movement?” The president replied by repeating the lie that Seattle’s Democratic mayor had let “a radical left group, Antifa and others, take over a big portion of the city.”
On Wednesday, Rion drew Trump’s attention to what looked like a fairly lame conservative prank — the fact that the obscure website antifa.com was suddenly redirecting traffic to Biden’s campaign site. Suggesting that this stunt might somehow indicate support for Biden from the loose network of antifascist groups Trump has falsely portrayed as a shadow army, Rion asked if the president thought Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, should “publicly denounce the Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization?”
“They should,” Trump replied. “I think they’re afraid to. In my book, it’s virtually a part of their campaign: Antifa.” There was nothing remotely surprising in Trump making the absurd argument that Biden, a centrist Democrat, is secretly part of an antifascist subculture, but Rion’s play-acting as a White House correspondent is not intended to elicit any new information from the president. The point of these exchanges is to shield Trump from what tough questions about his failure to lead a coordinated federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to give him an opportunity to repeat lines he has already rehearsed, delivered as if they were answers to questions of vital importance.
Rion, who has been attending briefings as a guest of the White House press secretary since April, previously traveled to Ukraine with the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to promote false accusations about Biden spread by the pro-Russian lawmaker Andriy Derkach. An American intelligence assessment released last week concluded that Derkach was involved in a Russian plot to undermine Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party by “spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls” from 2016 between the former vice president and Ukraine’s president.
On Thursday, shortly after Trump praised the crackpot legal scholar who invented a racist conspiracy theory that Harris was not eligible to be vice president, even though she was born to immigrant parents in Oakland, he turned again to Rion. This time, however, she asked if he would, instead, take a question from Emel Akan of The Epoch Times, another of his press secretary’s guests from an equally rabid pro-Trump media outlet.
When Trump agreed, Akan asked him how the U.S. would respond to “the recent attack on press freedom in Hong Kong,” specifically the arrest of the publisher of the popular Apple Daily tabloid news site, Jimmy Lai, who has been an outspoken critic of the pro-Beijing leadership in the semiautonomous Chinese city. Lai could be charged with “collusion” with the United States for meeting Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington last summer to discuss Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest movement.
Although Trump began by saying, “Well, I think it’s a terrible thing,” he appeared to have little familiarity or interest in the subject of press freedom, or democracy in Hong Kong, pivoting quickly into his stock complaints about China’s trade policies. He even seemed to gloat a bit when he said that, as a result of the U.S. withdrawing the “tremendous financial incentives” for businesses based in Hong Kong, American companies might profit from the crackdown on the territory.
“We’ve now withdrawn all of those incentives. It’s going to be very hard for Hong Kong to compete,” Trump said. “And I will tell you that the United States… will end up making a lot more money because of it, because we lost a lot of business to Hong Kong,” he added. “We made it very convenient for people to go there, for companies to go there. We’ve withdrawn all of that and the United States will be a big beneficiary from an economic standpoint.”
While Trump’s answer was not the kind of stirring endorsement of press freedom Akan might have expected from an American president, inciting an attack on China’s government was probably gratifying to the owners of The Epoch Times. The paper is owned by members of the dissident Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement who have spent heavily to promote Trump as a useful battering ram against their ultimate enemy: the Chinese Communist Party that considers the banned sect a cult. An Epoch Times coronavirus explainer video echoes Trump’s rhetoric that China is to blame for the global pandemic, but urges people to call it not “the China Virus,” as Trump does, but the “CCP Virus.”
The White House press secretary’s invitation to the Epoch Times writer to participate in the briefing alongside reporters and photographers from some of America’s leading news organizations is remarkably brazen given that last year, when The Epoch Times was the largest buyer of pro-Trump ads on Facebook outside of the president’s own campaign, the site spent heavily to promote the baseless conspiracy theory that Biden had abused his power as vice president in 2016 to protect his son’s business interests in Ukraine.
Since then, the site has been banned from advertising on Facebook, after NBC reported that the newspaper had secretly placed Facebook ads promoting President Trump. Last week, Facebook also removed 303 fake accounts linked to The Epoch Times for spreading misinformation about Covid-19 and pro-Trump conspiracy theories about supposedly shadowy figures behind the ongoing racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
On Friday, after Trump twice refused to answer a question from The Associated Press about whether he believes the QAnon conspiracy theory in which he is a central figure, he solicited one from Alicia Powe, a proponent of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory who writes for the far-right Gateway Pundit blog.
Powe, who has claimed that the Clinton Foundation controls the FBI and is stifling investigations of child sex-trafficking rings and the murder of Seth Rich, asked Trump to comment on the accusation that Biden had claimed credit for the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Powe’s question was based on a blog post by the founder of Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft, which amplified an attack on Biden from the Kremlin-owned site Russia Today. Hoft’s post also quotes the analysis of Heshmat Alavi, a supporter of a militant Iranian cult called the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, who, as my colleague Murtaza Hussain revealed last year, is a fictional character.
McEnany did not respond to a question about whether she or someone else in her office invited Powe to the briefing on Friday, but Powe is a former blogger for WorldNetDaily, the far-right website that helped create the racist “birther” conspiracy theory to undermine President Barack Obama. Alyssa Farah, the White House director of strategic communications, is the daughter of Joseph Farah, who founded WorldNetDaily. In the 1990s, Joseph Farah was a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory that deputy White House counsel Vince Foster might have been murdered.
The presence of Rion, Akan and Powe also infuriated the White House Correspondents Association, whose members have agreed to send only 14 reporters a day during the pandemic, to maintain safe social distance.
The WHCA, which normally decides which accredited journalists are allowed in to the briefing room on a given day, also wants the aisles at the sides and the back of the room to be open for photographers and video crews to operate safely. “It is outrageous that the White House continues to invite ‘guests’ to press briefings, putting the health and safety of everyone in that workspace at greater risk,” the WHCA president, Zeke Miller, said in an email. “The WHCA’s social distancing guidelines were crafted in consultation with the White House based on the recommendations of the CDC and the nation’s leading public health professionals. Trampling on those guidelines endangers the critical work of reporters who have maintained independent press coverage of the presidency throughout the pandemic.”
Until April, OAN was a member of the correspondents’ association but the cable channel was expelled after Rion kept showing up at briefings when it was not her turn. Since then, she has attended press events as a guest of the White House press secretary.
Unlike the original, freewheeling coronavirus task force briefings — which came to a sudden halt in April when Trump mused that doctors should “check” to see if injecting patients suffering from Covid-19 with bleach or isopropyl alcohol, or exposing them to ultraviolet light, might cure them — the president’s current news conferences are much shorter and seem designed mainly to get his lengthy, written opening statements on the air and get him out of the briefing room after taking just a handful of questions.
Trump’s opening statements at the latest briefings are often nakedly political in nature, featuring crude, jarring attacks on Biden and other Democrats. “Today, we saw Joe Biden continue to politicize a pandemic and to show his appalling lack of respect for the American people. That’s what it is,” Trump said at the start of Thursday’s briefing. “At every turn, Biden has been wrong about the virus, ignoring the scientific evidence and putting left-wing politics before facts and evidence.”
After then blatantly lying about Biden’s suggested response to the pandemic in the most idiotic terms — “Sleepy Joe rejects the scientific approach in favor of locking all Americans in their basements for months on end” — Trump concluded, with a stunning lack of self-awareness: “To Joe, I would say: Stop playing politics with a virus. Too serious. Partisan politics has no place here. It’s a shameful situation for anybody to try and score political points while we’re working to save lives and defeat the pandemic.”
Trump’s prepared remarks at these briefings almost always feature highly misleading health and economic statistics intended to convey the false impression that the federal government’s pandemic response is the envy of the world.
At Tuesday’s briefing, for example, Trump said in his opening statement: “Since the end of July, the seven-day average for cases in the United States has fallen by nearly 20 percent, but the virus continues to increase in nations across the globe. Last week, France and Germany both recorded their highest daily number of new cases in three months — not that I want to bring that up, but might as well explain it to the media.” While those statistical measures of the increase by percentage of new cases in Europe and decrease by percentage in the U.S. were accurate, what they hid was the fact that, in raw numbers, the pandemic is obviously far less under control here than there.
The day Trump made those remarks, 53,315 new Covid-19 infections were confirmed by testing in the U.S. Germany’s highest number of daily infections in three months, recorded this week, was 1,445. Cases are down more in the U.S. but from a very high level to a slightly less high level. In much of Europe, cases are rising but from very low baseline. Adjusted for population, the U.S. recorded 154 new cases per million on Friday, while France had 41 and Germany 17.
“Those were model countries that you used to talk about and say how well they were doing,” Trump said to a reporter on Wednesday, of other, unnamed nations, “except, they just exploded — they just had very big flare ups.”
Trump also steadfastly refuses to admit that deaths from Covid-19, which have averaged over 1,000 a day for the past three weeks in the U.S., are now far higher than anywhere in Europe, even when adjusted for population.
While the pandemic is resurgent in many parts of the world, Trump has been unable so far to brow-beat the public into accepting his obviously false claims that things are better in the United States than in Europe or Asia. A new poll released by Monmouth University on Thursday showed that 52 percent of Americans “think the United States’ handling of the pandemic is worse than other countries,” while just 15 percent feel the U.S. is doing a better job than others and 29 percent say it is doing about the same.
Having complained on Wednesday about what he called “a wiseguy question” from a reporter who noted that two top Federal Reserve officials “said that the economy hasn’t recovered strong enough because the country hasn’t contained the virus,” Trump devoted part of his opening remarks at Thursday’s briefing to falsely complaining that Biden, who held a news conference two weeks ago, “never takes questions.”
“I take questions; he never takes questions,” Trump continued. “And you sort of wonder what’s going on, because they’re not that difficult. Some can be nasty, but they’re not that difficult.”
Updated: Saturday, August 15, 2:52 p.m. PDT
This article was updated to note President Donald Trump’s objection to former Vice President Joe Biden not holding as many news conferences as him.