...as American journalists slept: Way back then, the phenomenon of the daily "briefing" hadn't even started.
The so-called briefings weren't daily yet. But in a briefing on February 26, President Trump was already boasting about the way he had shut down travel from China:
QUESTION (2/26/20): At what point would you be considering loosen the travel restrictions regarding China?The president praised his own "bold decision," in which he'd decided "not to take people from a certain area" in China. He said we'd "never done that as a country before."
TRUMP: When we’re at a point where we don’t have a problem. You know, we’re not going to loosen the travel restrictions. That’s what saved us.
Had I not made—Mike alluded to it— Had I not made a decision very early on not to take people from a certain area, we wouldn’t be talking this way. We’d be talking about many more people would’ve been infected.
I took a lot of heat. I mean, some people called me racist because I made a decision so early. And we had never done that as a country before, let alone early. So it was a, you know, a bold decision. It turned out to be a good decision.
But I was criticized by the Democrats. They called me a racist because I made that decision, if you can believe that one.
We have to all work together. We can’t say bad things, and especially when we have the best team anywhere in the world. And we really gave it an early start. We gave it a very early start.
His bold decision had saved us, he said. He seemed to say that his decision had given us "a very early start" in combating the virus.
When the briefings became a daily affair, variants of this narrative emerged as a favorite among All the President's Monologues. At that time, Vice President Pence was cheerleading hard, and he was making false statements:
PENCE (3/9/20): And once again, because of the unprecedented action that President Trump took in January—suspending all travel from China; establishing travel advisories for portions of South Korea and Italy; establishing screening of all direct flights, all passengers from all airports from Italy and South Korea—we have—we have bought a considerable amount of time, according to all the health experts, to deal with the coronavirus here in the United States.Did we ever "establish screening of all direct flights, all passengers from all airports from Italy and South Korea?" We don't know, and given the way our discourse works, there's no obvious point in trying to find out. That said:
PENCE (3/13/20): Mr. President, from early on, you took decisive action. You suspended all travel from China. You created travel advisories—South Korea and Italy. We screened all travelers from all airports in both of those countries. And on the unanimous recommendation of your health experts, you, at midnight tonight, will effectively suspend all travel from Europe. And Americans that are returning will be screened and asked to voluntarily participate in a 14-day quarantine.
By now, it's widely known that President Trump didn't "suspend all travel from China" and didn't "effectively suspend all travel from Europe." But by March 14, the cheerleader in chief was even more overwhelmed by the president's early greatness:
PENCE (3/14/20): I think you can’t overstate how unprecedented and extraordinary the suspension of all travel from China was when the president made that decision before the end of January, and the travel advisories with portions of Italy, South Korea; the screening of personnel coming into our country.The greatness of the president's decision couldn't be overstated! By the next day, President Trump took over this role from his veep:
QUESTION (3/15/20): Mr. President, the other day, you said that you were not responsible for the testing shortfall. A very simple question: Does the buck stop with you? And on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your response to this crisis?By now, President Trump was saying that he'd been "very, very early" with respect to travel from China. When he gave himself a perfect 10 for his response to the crisis, he cited his very, very early decision as his first case in point.
TRUMP: I’d rate it a 10. I think we’ve done a great job. And it started with the fact that we kept a very highly infected country—despite all of the—even the professionals saying, “No, it’s too early to do that.” We were very, very early with respect to China. And we would have a whole different situation in this country if we didn’t do that.
As the days of plague dragged by and the briefings became longer and longer, this narrative became perhaps the most relentlessly recited of the stories now referred to as All The President's Monologues.
The president praised the greatness of his decision in the daily briefings of March 16, March 17, March 19, March 21 and March 22. On March 24, he praised the decision in newly embellished ways during his high-profile Fox News Virtual Town Hall:
QUESTION (3/24/20): Mr. President, when was the moment that you thought, “We got to move on this?"No one had come to him with information. It had just been a matter of instinct.
TRUMP: Well, I think when I started seeing and reading about China, and seeing what was going on in China—Wuhan, specifically. It seemed to come mostly out of there—that area, the province.
And when I saw that, and I saw the kind of death they were, you know, talking about on television, in the papers, and I started reading a lot about it. And, really, when I had to make a decision: Do I stop people from China and specifically that area—but from China—to come into the country? And everybody was against it. Almost everybody, I would say, was just absolutely against it. We’ve never done it before. We never made a decision like that.
QUESTION: Did somebody come to you with a bit of information, a piece of data? Was it a world leader? Was it a member of your own team? What was it?
THE PRESIDENT: No. No. It was instinct. No. We had a large group of people right behind me in the Oval Office. And I made it—I consulted with Mike. But we made a decision. I made a decision to close off to China. That was weeks early. And, honestly, I took a lot of heat. Sleepy Joe Biden said it’s xenophobic. I don’t know if he knows what that means, but that’s okay. He said it’s racist, what I did.
Thousands and thousands of more people—probably tens of thousands would be dead right now if I didn’t make that decision. And I must say, doctors—nobody wanted to make that decision at the time. It was very, very early. Call it luck or call it talent; it doesn’t matter. We made a great decision.
Sleepy Joe was calling him names, but he'd made the decision to close off to China "weeks early." You could call it talent or you could call it luck, but it had been a great decision, made at a time when "almost everybody was just absolutely against it."
So it went at the Fox Town Hall. The next day, at the regular daily briefing, Trump was at it again:
TRUMP (3/25/20): We’re the ones that gave the great response, and we’re the ones that kept China out of here. And if I didn’t do it, you’d have thousands and thousands of people died—who would’ve died—that are now living and happy. If I didn’t do that early call on China—and nobody wanted that to happen. Everybody thought it was a—just unnecessary to do it. And if we didn’t do that, thousands and thousands of people would have died, more than what’s happened. So that’s it.On March 26, he repeated his favorite message again. "We got very lucky when we made a decision not to allow people in from China at a very early date," the president said. "I say that because some people don’t want to accept it."
This messaging went on and on, day after day after day. Cable news channels and broadcast channels kept letting Trump broadcast these claims in prime time.
Eventually, this nonsense was going on for more than two hours per day. And as the days and weeks went on, it became harder and harder to get clear on some of Trump's claims.
Some of the time, he praised his experts for having advised him on China. On other occasions, he seemed to say that everyone had opposed his decision—the decision he had made on instinct, or perhaps because of talent.
On some occasions, he seemed to say that the United States had been the first country to shut off travel from China. More often, he seemed to say something different—that this was the first time the United States had shut off travel in this particular way.
Weeks went by as the commander staged these nightly performances. And now, for something a ;little bit different:
It's stunning to see how little pushback he received from the indolent journalists who sat before him in the White House briefing room.
By now, fact-checks have established some basic facts about the China matter:
The United States wasn't the first country to restrict travel from China. Indeed, it wasn't anything like the first.
The United States didn't "suspend all travel from China." Something like 40,000 people entered the United States from China even after the president's limited travel ban.
Reporting has seemed to establish the fact the experts and aides had been advising trump to shut down travel long before he decided to do so. That said, Trump said so many contradictory things during his weeks of briefings that it's a little hard to know exactly how to refute or establish his claims.
The sheer absurdity of Trump's self-praise should be apparent for all to see. It's amazing to think that these absurd monologues were broadcast day after day, week after week, long after it became clear that the daily sessions were exercises in political messaging rather than sources of reliable information.
It's easy for liberals to see the craziness of the president's daily songs in praise of himself. It's harder to see the way the members of the mainstream press behaved as they were handed these monologues day after day after day after day in the White House briefing room.
The network executives who aired these briefings were letting President Trump campaign for re-election. The people who sat before him day after day behaved a great deal like the "potted plants" who became famous during the Iran-Contra hearings.
Because career journalists won't talk about this, it's hard for liberals to see this problem. We can see the absurdity of Trump's behavior. But how did upper-end journalists comport themselves, day after day, in that briefing room?
We'll ponder that question in the next few days. Very few others will.
Tomorrow: Donald Trump voted by mail!
Read 'em and weep: For transcripts of all White House briefings, you can just start here.