PoTUS and Covid: American Public Relations in Action

It’s fair to say that the US election is a bizarre spectacle, especially when observed from across the pond. Compared with our relatively modest equivalent, filled with images of party leaders pulling pints in homely pubs and people standing around pointing in the rain, Americans have long taken the pageantry to a whole new level. For those who have been watching over the past few months, the latest episode of ‘which elderly man is going to run the world?’ is a pantomime of peculiarity in which at least one actor is apparently pumped full of performance enhancing drugs (an outrageous accusation actually levelled at the challenger Joe Biden by the incumbent).

The revelation that Covid had impregnated the White House – and more importantly, Donald Trump – caused concerns on both sides of the ever-growing political divide. Supporters of the President were obviously worried about whether he would be able to participate in the gruelling last weeks of the election trail. There was also unease from a more bipartisan cohort as it raised difficult concerns about what would happen if Trump was unable to stand at all, particularly as some ballots had already been cast and so a delay to the election was seemingly an impossibility. The risk of a collision between the unmovable date of Tuesday 3 November and the unstoppable force of Covid-19 became a very real question that no one was able to answer.

In order to keep a lid on things, one would assume that the most important move would be a steady and reliable stream of information on the President’s health. Steady stream of information? Check. Cohesion and synchronicity between briefings and updates? Not so much. This created a bizarre and confused timeline of events, which, for the linear-minded reader, I will now do my best to set out.

Thursday, 1 October: Hope Hicks, Senior Counsellor to Donald Trump, tests positive for Coronavirus a day after showing symptoms on the way back from a rally attended by the President. At about the same time, Trump shot off to attend a fundraiser in New Jersey. As has often been the case, the President did not observe social distancing and was known to be in contact with dozens of people. Later that evening Trump and Melania tested positive for Covid.

Friday, 2 October: Trump used his own personal megaphone (Twitter) to inform the people of his and Melania’s diagnosis. In what was described as a precautionary measure by the White House, Trump was taken to Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. H was  said to be exhibiting mild symptoms and was a small cocktail of drugs.

Saturday, 3 October: At 11:30 am a small squadron of lab-coat-clad physicians led by Trump’s very own Dr Sean Comley take the stage to address a group of reporters who have assembled at the hospital. The initial takeaway from this is that The President’s health is improving: he is described as being active and even engaging in work. Dr Comley then proceeds to skew the official timeline by mentioning that the diagnosis was 72 hours ago, which pre-dates the official version of events by one day. This is followed by a statement that he was administered drugs 48 hours ago, rather than 24 hours ago, once again pushing the timeline back by a day and immediately raising questions, either of the reliability of White House reports or the ability of this team of top doctors to count. This was followed by questions regarding whether or not the President had been on oxygen at any point since he was diagnosed. The questions were dodged as if they themselves contained Coronavirus. The implications of Trump having a diagnosis on Wednesday and then still attending a fundraiser on Thursday are, of course, severe.

After the doctors filed back in to continue their duties, things took an even more bizarre turn. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, approached a group of reporters asking to speak on the President’s health: however, off the record. Meadows proceeds to paint a far more gloomy picture. “The President’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning,” he said, “and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”

We know this because a video camera conveniently picked up Meadows addressing the reporters and, most importantly, requesting to keep his name out of it. This then gets back to PoTUS and is followed by a correction from Dr Comley claiming he misspoke and got his dates mixed up. This in turn is followed by a short video from a clearly unwell Trump talking about how he feels much better. Mark Meadows then appears on a radio show to play down the President’s condition, while acknowledging a brief moment of concern. This completes the back peddling – for now.

Sunday, 4 October: At a similar time to the day before, Dr Colmey conducts another press conference where he recognises the slightly more serious nature of the President’s condition and that the way it had been portrayed may have been done so with a slight veneer of rose tint. When pressed as to why this was he puts forward what seems to be a fascinating insight into the presidential mindset: “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, came off that we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”

This seems to mean that the President was concerned that if he gave information about his state that led people to believe he could be in danger, this could cause an atmosphere that would be debilitating to his health. In other words that he feeds off his own image and that his perception of himself was so important as to have physical implications. We know that Trump has no problem playing the pantomime villain. He also needs to be seen, and to see himself, as the strong man, capable of beating anything that life throws at him. The paradox of someone wanting to believe they are strong but also so worried about their perception that the public mood could exacerbate an illness, paints a picture of a muddled mindset. Of course it is entirely possible that this quote from Comley was simply the best excuse they could come up with without saying ‘we lied because my boss said so.’

Next, Donald Trump gets in an SUV and does a lap of the car park. Why is not clear. He waves at his supporters from behind bulletproof glass as two unfortunate servicemen drive him around. This leads to a Dr James Phillips, who works at Walter Reed tweeting with the kind of anger only mustered by medical professionals during a pandemic. “That presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack. The risk of COVID-19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding.”

Monday, 5 October: PoTUS goes home and gets back to work. The last we see of him before he disappears into the depths of the White House is through a rather bizarre campaign-style video of him stepping off a helicopter onto the lawn and marching up to his throne. He later followed up this nonchalant attitude with the now infamous tweet “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” I doubt the sentiment brings much comfort to those reeling from the effects of the illness.

It’s hard to see the whole way this played out as anything else apart from damage limitation from those close to the President. It doesn’t seem to have paid off. Biden has now surged to a double-digit lead in the polls. So as long as he hunkers down and doesn’t get himself sick he could very easily find himself at the business end of the Oval Office come November.

There are those who claim that the whole episode was a fake, that Trump never had Covid and the whole thing had been orchestrated. If this was a ruse, designed to show the strength of Trump to overcome the mighty Covid-19, then you would imagine the press briefings would at least make sense. The idea that this whole weekend of media mismanagement, back-pedalling and misspeaking might actually have been planned to play out that way is a terrifying notion and one I can’t entertain, even with my stoutest tin hat on.

Michael Quinn

The header image is taken from this article which appeared in MarketWatch online on 22 July 2020.

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