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Trump’s Oval Office address on COVID-19 hits a new low

President Donald Trump
Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS
President Donald Trump speaking about the U.S response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic during an address to the nation on Wednesday night.

Abe Lincoln was awkward, ungainly and homely. Luckily, in the pre-television age, those were relatively unimportant attributes in a presidential race in 1860 or 1864, not to mention that, in those days, custom required that presidential candidates not actively campaign. We have Lincoln’s beautiful words, from his major speeches, written by himself, with perhaps a little help but not by a team of professional speechwriters, not tested before focus groups or any of that modern stuff. I don’t really know whether saying “four score and seven years ago” instead of just “87 years ago” adds that much, but we know how we feel about it.

Nowadays, presidential eloquence consists partly of the ability to smoothly read, off a teleprompter, words written by professional speechwriters. I don’t know, I doubt if this is better, but it is what passes for eloquence in the TV age.

Donald Trump is not, by my lights, eloquent in any meaningful sense of the term as I understand it. And yet, his bizarre, semi-extemporaneous rambles at rallies obviously thrill his minions, and we have to make our peace with that.

Wednesday night, Trump broke with that style and read a speech to the nation about the coronavirus off a teleprompter.


You can watch it here, if you missed it.

That link comes from RealClearPolitics. I would also refer you to this piece by Rod Dreher, senior editor of “The American Conservative” for a brutal reaction to the speech.

Don’t be deceived by the name of the publication. Dreher was harshly critical of Trump’s attempt to comfort or level with the nation about the pandemic. I urge you to read it. The top of Dreher’s piece faults Trump’s delivery and criticizes some of his emphases.

Then, in a series of updates, he calls attention to many of the falsehoods, as reflected in various statements by Trump’s own administration. For example (pretty big one) Trump said he was suspending all travel from Europe (except for the United Kingdom) to America. That glitch required his own acting deputy secretary of homeland security, Ken Cuccinelli, to immediately tweet out a clarification: “This does not apply to American citizens or legal permanent residents or their families,” presumably including some who have been exposed. (Trump did mention exemptions for “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings.”)

In case you think it’s reasonable to allow Americans caught in Europe when the outbreak started, to come home, notwithstanding the possibility that they have been exposed to the virus while in Europe, you should note that the policy also doesn’t prevent more Americans from traveling to Europe in the future and then coming home.

There are lots of other problems that could be pointed out, but I sympathize to some extent with the difficult policy challenges presented by the problem, while not wanting to forgive the president for his previous position that the virus crisis would take care of itself in a few weeks when the weather warms up.

But, at the risk of being petty, I also suggest – and you have to watch the video before you decide whether you disagree – that this was the worst performance by a professional politician, reading from a teleprompter, of a major address to the nation that you have ever seen. Trump appears to be reading words he has never seen before. Perhaps that is unfair, but judge for yourself.

This is certainly very different from Rally Trump, where he riffs, lies with abandon and draws strength from the roar of his approvers.

Here, the mistakes he makes seem not to be demagoguery, but pure incompetence, including by whoever wrote the speech. You’ve seen Trump read from a teleprompter or a prepared text before, as at State of Union addresses. But I don’t think you’ve ever seen him look this bad or this insincere. It looks something like a hostage video.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/12/2020 - 03:46 pm.

    Trump’s address is nowhere’sville.
    No one’s at home.
    And that’s the good news.

  2. Submitted by kurt nelson on 03/12/2020 - 04:14 pm.

    That speech had the fingerprints of that slimy racist speech writer, Steven Miller all over it. The nativist bullshit, the racism in calling the virus a “foreign virus”, when it’s actually called Covid 19 (at least the pres would presumably be able to spell that). That is precisely what Miller wants, appeal to the base with the usual dog-whistles, and remove any blame from the pres – put it in the lap of Europe, except confusingly England.

    It was like Eric said, he had never seen some of those words before, so maybe his reading ability isn’t as beautiful as he, and his followers think. He had the day to prepare, practice, take some time to think deeply, but none of those are skills he possesses.

    Going forward it’s important to just skip his addresses, and just keep your eyes peeled on Twitter for the corrections. This will let you bypass the confusion, and having to watch that dullard attempt to be presidential.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/12/2020 - 06:55 pm.

    …Predicting a new low…..” That is a suggest future commentary will not go lower. Sadly I expect it will. I will say If ruination was his overall goal from the beginning he has accomplished it perfectly. I can hardly wait to see what comes next unless Covid 19 does me in and I miss it. Grim for sure. But there it is. But who will know since like others I will never be tested. So much of this could have been better handled and would have/be if not for his budget slicing of what now proves to be a government program providing major public needs. I do not need at this juncture in history to hear about the economy. I need to hear about public health for me, my loved ones and people we all come into contact with. Guess that means everyone.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/12/2020 - 07:29 pm.

    Thanks for the link to the Dreher piece; he makes excellent points. Somehow this one, in particular, struck me, that “[Trump] did not declare a state of national emergency, which would have helpful policy and legal effects at the state level.”

    Compare that to the alleged crisis at the border, which he declared an “emergency” to divert Department of Defense funding to build his precious wall. Yet, here we are, faced with an actual crisis & there’s no emergency to be found. Sigh.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/12/2020 - 08:37 pm.

    Yep, that dude looked very uncomfortable. No wonder the markets dove further before he was done.

  6. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/13/2020 - 04:35 am.

    To think that the next four years will have either the current occupant who can’t read off a teleprompter or a man who can’t complete a few sentences coherently.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/13/2020 - 12:50 pm.

      Solly…..do you really think that either Biden or Sanders will surround himself with incompetent no-nothings like Trump has ?

      • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/13/2020 - 04:15 pm.

        Biden has announced possibilities for his administration, which include Michael Bloomberg, Jamie Dimon, Anne Finucane, and other Wall Street and corporate hacks. At this time we need bold leadership that takes into account the needs of the working class, not a return to the Obama years.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/13/2020 - 07:23 pm.

      Your are obviously going to vote for Trump, considering them equivalent. Here is the difference – Biden in a good person, who has always served the public interest and loves the average citizen, while Trump is evil, self centered and considers average people losers or suckers. Also, Biden as authentic, Trump is thoroughly fake from his words to his hair.

      • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/13/2020 - 10:04 pm.

        You assume incorrectly. I think both political parties are corrupt, and our choices often are a lesser of two evils. I agree that Trump is terrible and a pathological liar, but Biden is not much better. He has been guilty of plagiarism and telling outright lies consistently since those about his academic record when young, favoring cuts to Social Security and Medicare, voting in favor of the surveillance state, in favor of the Iraq War, praising George W. Bush and presenting him the Liberty Medal, pushing a crime bill that has resulted in private prisons, and on and on.
        I was a Democrat when young, but the Democratic Party left me when they abandoned the ideals of FDR and adopted a neo-liberal stance. A vote has to be earned, it is not a right of any political party, which many people tend to forget.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 03/16/2020 - 04:21 pm.

          That would be the Bush = Gore school of thought.

          400,000 Dead folks would disagree with your premise if they could.

          Trump, due to his “extremely stable geniusness”, ignores competent advice, surrounds himself with bootlickers like Mike Pence and goes with his sizeable gut on most decisions.

          I’ll cheerfully take Biden every day and had no problem with Michael Bloomberg simply because he makes decisions based on data and knows how to amass, synthesize and act on data as well as anyone on the planet…

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/13/2020 - 06:24 am.

    It’s not the way they did it on “The West Wing”. What I have been reading in news stories is that the president has distanced himself from day to day operational decisions, a polite way of saying that a de facto coup d’etat has occurred. As a Democratic activist myself, my public attitude toward the president has shifted from bitter opposition, to just politely ignoring him.

    • Submitted by Brian Mann on 03/13/2020 - 01:19 pm.

      Same here. Except not so politely after wrecking us. He has finally become irrelevant.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/13/2020 - 04:04 pm.

      We cannot ignore the drastic consequences of this dangerous man-child in the White House, anymore than you can ignore a tornado bearing down on your house.

  8. Submitted by BK Anderson on 03/13/2020 - 08:22 am.

    Well, of course he can’t rise to the challenge of being a national leader—he’s never been an actual leader of anything of consequence in his life! He was the Grand Poobah of a ridiculous money-losing scam styled as a family business (which he inherited!), whose pathetic members had to worship the ground this fool walked on and praise his every utterance (and serial failure) as “genius”. Just look at the obsequiousness which his dependent children are required to display towards him. Quite a “leader”, indeed!

    And this was all quite apparent to every sentient being in summer 2016. Trump had no qualifications for the office whatever and nothing he had ever done in his miserable life of con games and serial lawbreaking had remotely prepared him to lead the US of A. But the incompetent (white) electorate knew better, so here we are.

    So on the night of his Covid 19 national emergency address, he simply imagined himself addressing a board meeting of Trump Enterprises, with only hand-picked sycophants in attendance. That’s what his real life actually consisted of, that’s all he knows. Then he would retire to his Vulgarian Versailles in Trump Tower for some TV and braindead texting. Now he’s still stuck with a national panic and ongoing economic calamity.

    Trump deserves massive blame for thinking this was a job for which he was capable and prepared, but he’s a small-time malignant narcissist, so that was par for the course. The real blame lies with the 63 million imbeciles that thought this idiot was perfectly qualified for the presidency; indeed, vastly superior to a highly qualified candidate! We might rid ourselves of the incompetent fool Trump at some point, but he’s the lesser aspect of the incompetence problem.

  9. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 03/13/2020 - 08:31 am.

    Yeah, I actually read a solid article in The American Conservative recently reminding America the only way working class wages are really going to lift the precarit out of economic despair and reduce income inequality is collective bargaining, aka unions. I can’t remember the last time I read a moderate Liberal pundit make such an argument.

    Considering the rigors of the Presidency and the campaign, and their advanced age, it would be something of a wonder if either Trump or Biden survive to November, what with the hollowing out of American productive capacity and the health care system having been turned into a price gouging exercise in meritocratic racketeering, revealed so starkly.

    Here is Trump looking unwell, like an empty suit, unable to muster a presidential stance in the absence of a record breaking bull market. Wait for Biden in the next debate to make Trump look like he is aware of his surroundings. I know Dems pine for a return to “normal”, but such times as these do not really call for nostalgia. Everything about America is about to be questioned and I doubt Trump, Biden or Bernie are up to that task.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2020 - 01:55 pm.

      I’ve read some interesting articles on economics in the American Conservative. They’re for the free market, but that doesn’t make them particularly tolerant of either plutocracy or the American worship of wealth.

  10. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 03/13/2020 - 12:25 pm.

    He called for an end to partisanship then, 9 hours later, starts tweeting attacks on Democrats. This is beyond stupid and well into the realm of irrational (trying hard to avoid using the term psychotic).

  11. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 03/13/2020 - 05:00 pm.

    Then there was his press conference today. Where he completely refused to take responsibility for any of the testing delays that have occurred or the dismantling of the pandemic response team that was in place when he came into office.

  12. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2020 - 05:34 pm.

    Aristotle teaches us that a speaker has three modes of persuasion: the personal character of the speaker; putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; and the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Trump has always relied heavily on stirring the emotions of his audience (“riling up the base”) or his personal character (sharing the same hatreds as his audience) Logic or facts have never been his tools.

    Unfortunately for him, a speech on a public health threat is one that calls for facts, and also logic. Trump has absolutely no credibility in that regard. Why would we trust in the efficacy of directives from the President whose gut reaction to the emergency was to conclude it was a plot to tank the stock market in order to make him look bad? Or who would have a map crudely redrawn rather than admit he misspoke about the path of a hurricane? Or who uses loyalty to Donald J. Trump as the main criterion for deciding whom to appoint to important positions? Today we learned that his speech was co-written by all-purpose fixer Jared Kushner, whose research on the matter included asking a Facebook group for talking points he could put into the speech, and the nativist Steve Miller. Does that make anyone feel confident in what the administration is doing?

    No one in their right mind would blame Trump for causing the virus, but his typically Trumpian response to it is all on him. His vanity, his defensiveness, and his deep and abiding ignorance have all come together to make the crisis even worse. The speech, agonizing as it was, is only the symptom.

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