“Sleepy Joe” And ‘Tiger King’: Networks Navigate Another Offbeat Trump Coronavirus Briefing

Ted Johnson

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When the latest White House coronavirus press briefing started on Wednesday, Fox News covered it live, MSNBC joined it in progress, and CNN avoided its start altogether.

But they all captured much of briefing later, when the president took questions from reporters. Donald Trump, a tad more subdued, was asked and weighed in on not just the coronavirus crisis but off-topic items like the Netflix hit Tiger King. And he went into campaign-rally mode when it came to Bernie Sanders’ decision to drop out, stirring the pot with a mix of innuendo and insult.

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“It amazes me that President Obama hasn’t supported Sleepy Joe [Biden]. It just hasn’t happened. … He knows something that you don’t know,” the president said.

The networks have been viewing the briefings as necessary to cover — and, as Trump pointed out again on Wednesday, they have garnered much larger audiences for them — and with more caution as critics see it as next to impossible to fact check the his claims.

At the start of the briefing, CNN skipped Trump’s opening remarks and those of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with Wolf Blitzer telling viewers that they were waiting “to hear from the experts on the Coronavirus Task Force.” Instead, Blitzer spoke with the network’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

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MSNBC’s Chuck Todd told viewers that they were going to the briefing but “anytime we think this has veered way off the truth lane, we will try to bring it back in. We do think you are capable of discerning this on your own, so take a listen.”

As Trump continued to speak, MSNBC did break away for some fact checking. Todd turned to Dr. Vin Gupta to talk about the president’s claims about the use of hydroxychloroquine and zinc as coronavirus treatments.

“I was really happy to hear about the president talking about clinical trials and messaging on that,” Gupta said. “But then he followed it up with a representative from Michigan and what might have been a really successful use of hydroxychloroquine. We just don’t know if that is an actual cause of their improvement. We just don’t know. Which is why he was doing great, talking about clinical trials upfront.”

Then, he added, “The comments about zinc were mystifying.”

Some reporters in the briefing did challenge some of Trump’s claims from days earlier. CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta asked the president whether the White House or his campaign could back up his claim that mail-in voting is rife with voter fraud. That was a major issue in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary and will be in the November general election if the coronavirus crisis lingers into fall.

“Where is the evidence?” Acosta asked Trump.

“I think there is a lot of evidence, and we will provide you with some,” the president replied, citing Judicial Watch’s settlement with the state of California “where they agreed that a million people should not have voted.” But the California settlement involves removing inactive registrations from the voter rolls — but makes no reference to voter fraud or illegal voting, according to Politifact.


As he did on Tuesday, Trump continued to criticize the World Health Organization, noting its January 14 tweet that Chinese authorities had found no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Obviously, that was wrong. Trump said the White House is considering withholding funding to the WHO.

On MSNBC, Kasie Hunt took issue with the president’s effort to blame the WHO and at the same time claim that he took aggressive action by shutting down flights from China.

“It is true that there were some limiting of flights and paying attention to flights from Wuhan, but people kept coming and coming, and that is what contributed to the outbreak here, so I think that is important to underscore,” Hunt told Todd.

As it turned out, one of the more interesting moments came after Trump had left. It was when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, talked of whether the current social distancing efforts have worked. Models predicting the number of deaths from the coronavirus have been revised substantially downward in recent days.

“We know now for sure that the mitigation that we have been doing is having a positive effect, but you don’t see it until weeks later,” he said before adding, “Don’t get complacent about that.”


Fauci also addressed what he called “conspiracy theories” surrounding the coronavirus. Fox News’ Brit Hume and other conservative commentators have advanced the idea that the number of coronavirus deaths are inflated in part because they have other serious illnesses.

“You will always have conspiracy theories when you have very challenging public health crises,” Fauci said. They are nothing but distractions. We have so much to do to protect the health and welfare of the American people that I would just hope that we put that conspiracy theory stuff and let somebody write a book about it later on but not now.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, another member of the task force, said, “If you have asthma, if you have renal disease, if you have hypertension, these are pre-existing conditions that put you at a greater risk to having a worse outcome.” She said that she’s also been hearing the other side of the claim — that coronavirus deaths are being undercounted.

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