I’m convinced that in a former life, President Donald Trump was a brilliant defense attorney. Getting him to give a direct answer to a question is like trying to nail a Jell-O mold to a wall. This has enabled Trump to turn his pandemic updates into daily propaganda showcases. Trump can stand in front of reporters for hours at a time, appearing to answer questions but instead spinning a tale in which he emerges as a savior while the country is burning.
Since my over-the-counter antacids are no match for a Trump news conference, I typically get most of my news from online newspapers. But in preparation for this column, I committed to watching the president's Friday and Monday briefings.
Sometimes Trump is asked one question and answers as if he had been asked a completely different question. Sometimes Trump ignores the question altogether and responds with a web of exaggerated self-praise. And sometimes Trump simply lies.
Push Trump back onto the track
Maybe I miss cross-examining squirrelly witnesses who are trying to escape their own misdeeds. Or maybe a month of stay-at-home compliance has exacerbated my obsessive compulsive disorder. Either way, I’ve been jotting down a list of times Trump evaded a reporter’s question, along with my backseat driver’s cross-examination suggestions on how to push him back onto the track. The list is longer than a CVS drugstore receipt, but here are a few.
Reporter: What authority do you have to reopen right now? The same way that it’s up to the states to shut it down, it’s up to them to reopen. What authority do you have?
Trump: I have great authority if I want to use it. ... I have absolute authority to use it. ... Would I do it if I saw a state that was out of control and they didn’t have the stay-at-home policy? I would do it in a heartbeat.
Cross: Mr. President, I’m not asking whether you have the authority to shut down states. Here's my question — Do you believe you have the authority to reopen states, over the objection of governors?
Hotline:Share your coronavirus story
Trump: We’re in great shape with protective clothing.
Cross: Then why did Patricia Kane, the executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, say they don’t have enough protective clothing? And why are there photos of nurses at New York Mount Sinai West hospital wearing garbage bags because they don’t have personal protective equipment?
Trump: The governors have said — last night, they had a group of governors, 14 governors. They were together someplace, and they said, "It’s been unbelievable what’s happened." We’ve been totally responsive.
Cross: Mr. President, could you tell me which 14 governors you’re referring to, who said that they have all the ventilators and personal protective equipment they need? And could you please tell me where this meeting of 14 governors occurred last night?
Reporter: If (your medical experts) come back to you, sir, and say, before May the 1st, "We can’t open on May the 1st," do you listen?
Trump: I will certainly listen.
Reporter: Will you take that advice?
Trump: There are two sides. ... I will listen to them very carefully, though.
Cross: Listening to them is not the same as following their recommendation. Will you commit to keeping the stay-at-home guidelines in place past May 1 if that’s what your medical experts advise?
Reporter: On March 6th, you said anyone who wants a test can get a test. Now you’re saying that there — that you would be open to reopening the government without having a national testing system. ... There’s still issues with testing going forward.
Trump: There's not a lot of issues with testing. ... Vast areas of our country don’t need this. ... You don’t have to test every single person (in Iowa) to say, "Let’s open up and let’s get the tractors moving, and let’s get the corn."
Cross: I’m not suggesting you send tests where they're not needed. I’m asking why places like New York, California, Louisiana and Detroit have leaders saying they don’t have sufficient tests. I’m also asking for a specific date by which the federal government can ensure these places will have the tests they need.
Bearing witness:Why I watch Trump's daily coronavirus briefings (and no, it's not because I'm a masochist)
Reporter: Today, you tweeted "The Invisible Enemy will soon be in full retreat!" Given it’s invisible, without widespread testing how would you know?
Trump: At a certain point in the not-too-distant future it will be gone. …You're going to see nobody's getting sick anymore. It will be gone and it won't be that much longer.
Cross: Mr. President, I’m sure everyone appreciates your optimism, but that is a big promise. Specifically, when do you estimate this will happen? A month? Three months? By the end of the year? Do Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx agree?
The presidential equivalent of Houdini
Reporter: Is there a priority to get testing at food-processing plants all across the country?
Trump: Well, you’re asking that because of what happened ... in Denver. ... This is very complex. This is a very brilliant enemy. You know, it’s a brilliant enemy. They develop drugs like the antibiotics. You see it. Antibiotics used to solve every problem. Now one of the biggest problems the world has is the germ has gotten so brilliant that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.
Cross: Mr. President, are you aware that antibiotics have no effect on a disease like COVID-19? More to the point, will you commit to ensuring that in the next seven days, all food processing plants have testing available for their employees, to ensure our food chain is safe for Americans?
Reporter: You didn’t close down (the country) until the middle of March. Should you have closed it down earlier?
Trump: I closed down from China.
Reporter: It’s not about January.
Trump: Excuse me, I closed it down from China. And, by the way, some people think I should have waited longer and maybe ridden it out.
Cross: You limited travel from China starting in February but didn’t issue stay-at-home guidelines until mid-March. Those are the 45 days when the virus spread across this country. Those are the 45 days that could have saved tens of thousands of American lives. Why didn’t you issue those guidelines earlier?
Too hot to handle:Trump's coronavirus briefings are too dangerous for news media to show them live
I have immense respect for the journalists who unearth the endless well of negligence and corruption that come from an administration careening out of control. But Donald Trump is the presidential equivalent of Harry Houdini. He has an innate ability to escape the chains of truth that should hold him in the spotlight long enough to reveal the emperor has no clothes.
On Monday, Paula Reid of CBS News gave the president a run for his money with a series of rapid-fire questions about the administration's delay in responding to the pandemic. We need more of that. Going forward, journalists must consider that capturing a shape shifter in his true form is tough. The only way to do it is through pressure — lots of pressure.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1