Trump's stage is caving in. Bring on the doctors.
Posted April 27, 2020 8:59 a.m. EDT
Updated April 27, 2020 9:32 a.m. EDT
CNN — Back in December 1989, during Donald Trump's previous reign as the King of Atlantic City, before he became the King of Ventilators, the Rolling Stones had been booked for a pay-per-view concert sponsored by the Trump Plaza casino. Not only would they perform, but as part of the deal, they would also hold a pre-concert press conference.
One hitch: The Stones insisted that Trump could not be there. They even had it written into their contract.
As the band prepared to meet the press, Trump walked in, ready to go to the podium too. The Stones refused to go out with him; one of their reps demanded that Trump leave per their contract.
Trump was furious and stormed out. "What the hell's going on?" he asked Jack O'Donnell, the casino executive who recalls this story. "It's my press conference."
As we now know, it's always Trump's press conference.
"It doesn't matter," says O'Donnell. "He just can't stand other people getting more attention. He'll say anything if he thinks it will get him to where he wants to be."
But when the President mused aloud about the healing potential of disinfectants last week, his stage caved in. He wasn't getting the adoration he craves and believes he deserves. Doctors were pleading with people to disregard what Trump had said, and the President became a punchline. Republicans were privately fretting his daily appearances were dragging him down.
And so Trump, having been rebuffed, predictably tweeted he was sick of it, complaining about "hostile" media questions, asking "what is the purpose" of his daily appearances, saying it's "not worth the time and effort."
Actually, the daily pressers would be worth the time and effort if the briefings were done by the doctors. Instead, we've watched the doctors sit passively -- often uncomfortably -- while the President undermines their work. Or forces them to go to the podium to revise and extend their remarks on something truthful they said that the President didn't like. Or as he tries to convince the public he's doing a great job. Touting miracle cures like hydroxychloroquine; promoting bizarre ideas; raising false hopes that the virus will magically disappear with warm weather.
Each one, of course, flying in the face of science and into danger. And that's just what we see onstage; imagine what it's like inside the White House as the professionals try to brief the President.
And so comes the question that is not new in Trumpworld, but is probably part of the new normal for the doctors.
"How long can they take the insanity?" asks O'Donnell. "How long can they live with him compromising their integrity?" O'Donnell and Trump parted acrimoniously over disagreements over financial projections. The problem, he says, is that Trump "views disagreeing with him as not loyal." And, he adds, "You can see it on their (the doctors') faces, doing word salad dances, it's painful to watch."
O'Donnell lasted less than four years.
A staffer, bylined Anonymous, famously explained why some have chosen to stay in this White House. "We are trying to do what's right even when Donald Trump won't." Yet the revolving door in this administration is unmatched: a turnover of 86% among top advisers, according to the Brookings Institution.
So what do the doctors do? The country needs them, not only for their knowledge and expertise, but to speak truth to power, even if it's only privately. The endgame isn't just about preserving personal reputations or keeping a President in check politically or avoiding getting fired or being publicly admonished by a bully. It's literally about saving lives in a pandemic.
So sticking it out -- even with Trump in charge -- is the answer. That doesn't mean pandering to him in public. Or tailoring answers to fit his requirements. It means being governed by the science, no matter where the President wanders. If they do anything else, who is the public to believe?
Besides, there's some comfort in knowing the doctors have some immunity. Consider: Americans say they're far more trusting of Dr. Anthony Fauci than President Trump -- nearly two-to-one. It would be a terrific blow if his doctors were to turn on him.
"I'm sure it galls him that he needs them," says O'Donnell, adding that Trump can always "subtly find a way to put them on the back burner if he doesn't like what they're saying." For instance: Fauci's sporadic appearances at the White House podium.
Maybe the President will decide to skip answering questions at the briefings, or maybe he won't be able to resist. Maybe he'll stop showing up altogether. But no matter what signals Trump sends, the experts have the voices we need. The state scientists have key voices. Doctors around the country are being heard.
They have all taken the same oath: Do no harm.
Now there's a corollary: don't let the President do any, either.