For weeks, Trump has been giving curvy information about the state of the Covid fight, which has deteriorated significantly. When he got up from the Oval Office on April 23 to brief reporters who had gathered in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, it was unlikely that the daily routine would turn out differently than usual.
In private, however, some of his aides were concerned. The Covid Task Force had met that day – as usual without Trump – to discuss the latest findings, including the effects of light and moisture on the spread of the virus. Trump was briefed by a small group of aides. But some aides realized he hadn’t processed all of the details before leaving to speak to the press.
“Some of us actually tried to stop it in the west wing hallway,” said a former high-ranking Trump White House official. “I actually argued that President Trump wouldn’t have the time to take it in and understand it. But I lost and it went the way it was. “
Trump started his press conference that day by doing something he wanted to loathe: promoting basic public safety measures. He called for the “voluntary use of face coverings” and said of his administration: “Continued care is an integral part of our strategy.”
However, there was quickly an indication of how loose the guard rails were that day. Trump introduced Bill Bryan, director of science and technology for the Department of Homeland Security. “He will talk about how the virus reacts in sunlight,” said the president. “Wait until you hear the numbers.”
As Bryan spoke, graphs of surface temperatures and virus half-lives were displayed behind him. He was more proactive in preaching that people should “move activities outside” and then conducted detailed ongoing studies of disinfectants. “We tested bleach,” he once said. “I can tell you that bleach will kill the virus in five minutes.”
Trump stepped aside, clasped his hands in front of his stomach, nodded and looked into the room of the assembled reporters. When Bryan finished, he walked slowly back to the lectern.
“A question that some of you are likely to think about when you’re all in this world,” began Trump, clearly thinking about the question itself – and I think you said it wasn’t checked, but you’re going to test it . And then I said, suppose you brought the light into the body, which you can either do through your skin or some other way, and I think you said you are going to test that too. That sounds interesting. And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. A minute. And is there a way to do something like that, by injecting it inside or almost by purifying it? Because you see it go into the lungs and go into the lungs in tremendous numbers. So it would be interesting to check that out. “
Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s former coronavirus response coordinator, sat in silence as the president made these suggestions. She later said to ABC, “I didn’t know how to deal with this episode,” adding, “I still think about it every day.”
Within the Biden campaign, the helpers were also shocked. At the time, they were working remotely and mostly communicating via Signal. But they quickly realized the meaning of what had happened.
“Even for him,” said a former Biden election worker, “it was stratospheric insane and dangerous.” It cemented the case we’d made of his dilapidated covid reaction. “
In a short time, the notorious press conference on bleaching became a literal rally for Trump’s opponents, with Biden supporters marking their shipyards with the signs “He won’t put bleach in you”. It was a scourge for Trump. He would continue to insist that he was just being sarcastic – a claim that contradicted the excited curiosity he had about asking Birx these questions. His former team admits that real damage has been done.
“People in the White House joked about it,” Do you drink bleach and inject sunlight? “People mocked it and said, ‘Oh, get me noticed in the sun and I’m safe from Covid,” he said a former administrator. “It honestly hurt. It was a credibility problem. … It even got us off from an international point of view damaged the credibility in the White House. “
The fact that Trump even sat at the lectern that day scratched the head for many. For weeks, he and his team had downplayed the severity of the Covid crisis, even though Washington Post President Bob Woodward privately admitted that it could potentially be catastrophic. But when it became clearer that the public wasn’t buying the rosy assessments, Trump decided to take his fate into his own hands and assemble the press every day to fight his way through the crisis.
He loved it. The former government official said Trump is thrilled with the free airtime he has on television every day. “He asked how much money it was worth,” the adjutant recalled. The coverage was so ubiquitous that Fox News’ Bret Baier once attended the meeting and pounded questions on the President because his own show was routinely interrupted.
The bleach episode changed all that.
Aides immediately understood what caused Trump’s remarks to cause a public health swamp. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted he be taken out of context.
“President Trump has repeatedly said that Americans should consult doctors about coronavirus treatment, a point he re-emphasized during yesterday’s briefing,” McEnany said in a statement released the next day. “Let the media irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”
But behind the scenes, Trump’s remarks were used by senior aides as evidence of why they had to take action against unchecked information presented to the president. “Either they didn’t know what he was going to say – which is not ideal – or they didn’t push back before he went to the briefing,” said a former senior communications officer in the Trump administration. “It was a big, easy mistake that could have been prevented.”
At this point, White House staff were already discussing the effectiveness of Trump’s sharing of health information with the public and answering any questions a reporter might ask. Some aides – along with Republican allies on Capitol Hill – urged the president to turn his back on his health professionals on the podium.
“It became like a presser to have a presser. We had nothing to announce or any real political plans, ”said a former White House official. “If you just come out and talk, a Q&A. [with reporters] wasn’t helpful. “
Trump would only hold a handful of press conferences after the Bleich episode before picking them up again in July. A year later, the episode is still considered a pivotal point in the fight against Covid and a prime example of what can go wrong when an overconscious president believes he is finding his way through a one-off global pandemic.
“Without a doubt [it was] A pivotal moment in the president’s communications, and while it is easy to laugh about, I hope he will train leaders and communicators for decades, “said Robert Gibbs, former Obama White House press secretary. “But that was when we knew without a doubt that the government was overwhelmed and that its ability to both respond effectively and educate Americans about what to do was nowhere near.”