President Trump’s weekend with reporters at his private golf club in New Jersey can be explained as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
The gatherings were called presidential press conferences, but they were indecipherable as news events to the point they didn’t matter. Impressing the president’s rich golf club members did. They provided backslapping support.
Winston Churchill originated the riddle, mystery, enigma phrase when trying to describe the interests of the Russians in the first year of World War II. Trump’s re-election intentions are clear enough but his description of news to achieve that goal is smoke and mirrors.
Friday night he huddled first with happy hour golf club members to reassure them about the great things he’s achieved as president. Then he called an impromptu press conference in the club’s grand ballroom so the golfers could witness the fake media he has to put up with.
Wine glasses in hand and “Hail to the Chief” playing on the room’s loudspeakers, the golfers filed in, sitting apart from the cluster of political reporters, who served as a prop for Trump’s message of misinformation that increased testing is the reason for a surge in coronavirus infections.
That’s a conclusion medical experts say is false, pointing to the rise in hospitalizations and deaths from the spread of the highly contagious disease.
Trump, as he often does, doubled down by stating the pandemic is in the process of “disappearing. It’s going to disappear.” And, of course, followed up with his oft-stated claim he’s done a “tremendous job” managing the health crisis.
The U.S. exceeded 5 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began while Trump stood by his usual no worry approach at his Bedminster golf course. More than 162,000 people from around the nation have died from the disease.
Few of the 100 or so club members wore masks or distanced themselves from each other. They cheered Trump’s boasts, and booed the reporters when he disparaged the press. It didn’t match the volume of a Trump rally but it had the same adoring crowd chemistry.
It was a propaganda maneuver to keep Trump in the news; an opportunity to put on a show for his well-off club members, many of whom are doubtless generous campaign donors.
A curtain call occurred Saturday night. Only this time he used the press conference setting to carry out his promise to override Congress by showily signing executive orders extending jobless benefits, defer payroll taxes, suspend rent fees and evictions, and extend the deadline for college debt payment. There were legal and other uncertainties in the fine print but he didn’t bother with those details.
Later, even some Republicans questioned his usurping Congress’ power of the purse. GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative Nebraskan, described Trump’s executive orders as “unconstitutional slop,” drawing the ire of the president for “going rogue.”
The best part of the press conference came during questions from reporters after Trump signed the executive orders and earlier veterans’ legislation for treatment courts and expanding a housing grant program for disabled and blind veterans.
This time the cheerleaders wore masks handed out by golf club employees.
Trump began by falsely bragging he alone was able to pass the Veterans Choice bill that many other presidents had unsuccessfully tried for years to make the law of the land.
He did nothing of the sort. In 2018, he signed a bipartisan bill simply expanding the 2014 Veterans Choice Act to include mental health providers. President Obama signed into law the act that allows veterans to go to doctors of their choice, not just VA doctors.
CBS reporter Paula Reid fact-checked Trump on the spot, an unusual development in itself.
“You said that you passed Veterans Choice,” said Reid. “It was passed in 2014 … it was a false statement, sir.” And one he has made many times about the law, fact-checkers have pointed out.
Trump abruptly cut short the press conference, walking off the stage. The peanut gallery saw how the president handles questions challenging his bluster, with the election less than three months away.
Bill Ketter is CNHI, LLC senior vice president for news. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.