Trump confronts twin challenges: health and credibility

Why We Wrote This

More than most presidential administrations, Donald Trump’s has followed a pattern of untruthful or careless communication with the public. Now it faces its biggest credibility challenge yet.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Donald Trump arrives back at the White House aboard Marine One after being treated for COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Washington, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.

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All presidents shade the truth or outright lie at times, whether it’s to protect national security or to hide embarrassing personal conduct. But with just four weeks until Election Day, as President Donald Trump himself faces down the coronavirus that has killed 209,000 Americans, a long-building lack of credibility with a majority of the public may be his biggest weakness. 

Only 34% of American adults believe President Trump has relayed truthful information about the virus, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after his own diagnosis was revealed last Friday. 

From misstating the crowd size on Inauguration Day to claims that Mexico will pay for a southern border wall, Mr. Trump has racked up thousands of false statements – some obvious exaggerations, others more consequential. The risks may go beyond Mr. Trump’s brand name as a politician – including potentially leading the public not to believe the president during an emergency such as a 9/11-style attack, communications experts say.

“This White House has been challenged from the beginning on its credibility,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who has observed White House operations from inside the building’s press quarters for decades. She adds, “The White House staff is responsible to the presidency as an institution, not just to Donald Trump.”

All presidents shade the truth, spin, dissemble, over-promise, or outright lie at times. Sometimes they lie to protect national security or to hide embarrassing personal conduct. 

But with just four weeks until Election Day, as President Donald Trump himself faces down the coronavirus that has killed 209,000 Americans, a long-building lack of credibility with a majority of the public may be his biggest weakness. 

Only 34% of American adults believe President Trump has relayed truthful information about the virus, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll taken after his own diagnosis was revealed last Friday. 

Mixed messages coming from White House officials, including Mr. Trump’s chief of staff and physician, muddied public perceptions about the president’s own health status early in his three-day stay at Walter Reed Medical Center. Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician, later acknowledged that he withheld certain specifics to lift the president’s spirits.  

By Monday evening, Mr. Trump had made a triumphal return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, despite an acknowledgment from Dr. Conley that he “may not entirely be out of the woods yet.” The White House has its own medical unit, staffed 24/7, the doctor noted to reporters as he defended the decision to allow the president to go home. 

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump tweeted that he was “looking forward” to debating Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Miami on Oct. 15, the latest sign of a president projecting good health, and that he’s eager to return to the campaign trail.

Nearly four years into the Trump presidency, chronic credibility challenges have made the president’s health situation – and larger public messaging around the pandemic – all the more potentially destabilizing. From misstating the crowd size on Inauguration Day to claims that Mexico will pay for the wall on the U.S. southern border, Mr. Trump has racked up thousands of false statements, some merely comical or obvious exaggeration, others more consequential. 

As a showman and salesman, Mr. Trump can be excused some hyperbole and imprecision, his defenders say. But there can be larger consequences to feeding the American people a steady diet of false or misleading claims, intentionally or not – including potentially leading the public not to believe the president during an emergency such as a 9/11-style attack, communications experts say. 

“In past presidencies, there was a presumption that what you were being told was at least accurate, even if incomplete,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “The presumption has now shifted to doubting everything that one is told.”

An atomized media environment already marked by political polarization, disinformation, and freewheeling social media has made efforts to keep the public accurately informed all the more difficult. 

A mutual distrust between the White House and its press corps can also lead to misfires. 

“The messaging around Trump’s health wasn’t as crisp as it could have been because [officials] didn’t know who they could trust,” says a GOP strategist regularly briefed on White House and campaign strategy. “They felt it would be irresponsible to give out too much information, because it could be misinterpreted.” 

Still, in the presidency – the American institution with the biggest megaphone on the planet – perhaps the most precious commodity of all is credibility. 

“There are three keys to credibility,” Republican strategist Whit Ayres says he tells clients. “Never defend the indefensible, never deny the undeniable, and never lie.”

Anyone who violates one of those guidelines, much less two or three, will destroy their credibility, Mr. Ayres says. He points to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio as public figures with “enormous credibility and resulting popularity” – both examples of how it’s possible to maintain credibility during a pandemic. 

It’s also essential, Mr. Ayres says, to remain fact-based when making highly consequential decisions, such as whether or how to reopen the economy and schools before a vaccine becomes widely available. 

The vaccine question itself has become politicized as Mr. Trump urges government approval of a vaccine by Election Day. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration released tough new guidelines for the emergency release of a coronavirus vaccine, which are designed to boost public confidence in the vaccine – but will make it unlikely that a vaccine is released before Election Day. The White House had reportedly blocked the new guidelines for two weeks. 

Mr. Trump’s push for a vaccine, under Operation Warp Speed, has met with growing skepticism by the American public. An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released in mid-September showed only 39% of Americans said they would be willing to get the vaccine, down from 44% the month before. 

“This White House has been challenged from the beginning on its credibility,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who has observed White House operations from inside the building’s press quarters for decades. “It’s a sad situation that people believe they can’t believe a president.” 

“There appears to be little understanding of the difference between President Trump and the presidency as an institution,” adds Ms. Kumar, an emeritus professor at Towson University in Maryland. “The White House staff is responsible to the presidency as an institution, not just to Donald Trump.” 

Mr. Trump’s decades running privately held businesses that don’t answer to shareholders have likely fed his impulse as president to treat White House staff the same way – as employees loyal only to him and not as public servants, she suggests.

That said, among White House staff there’s frustration that some information about infections within the building was not reported in a timely manner. Some staff have become infected themselves, as have some members of the press corps. Mask-wearing is now more common within the White House, but still not universal, staff say. 

Mr. Trump himself still sets the tone on the mask question. Upon his return to the White House on Monday, he pulled his mask away from his face and entered the building, maskless, with staff standing nearby.

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report. 

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