New White House coronavirus communications strategy for Trump off to confusing start

By JORDYN PHELPS and BEN GITTLESON, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Eager to move beyond President Donald Trump’s damaging suggestion last week that disinfectants could be used as a treatment for COVID-19, and amid concerns from advisers that the president’s daily appearances have done more to harm than help his political standing, the White House on Monday sought to retool its coronavirus public relations strategy focusing more on the economy.

But almost as soon as Trump’s team staked out the new strategy, it shifted again.

After the president over the weekend held no briefings and even questioned their value, the White House first scheduled a briefing to take place Monday evening — then canceled it — then added a Trump news conference — for the same time.

Just hours after the president’s newly-minted press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the White House would not hold its daily government response task force briefing Monday, she took to Twitter to announce that there would be a press conference with the president to update the public on “additional testing guidance and other announcements about safely opening up America again.”

“We like to keep reporters on their toes,” White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah tweeted in reply along with a winking emoji. Farah later deleted the tweet.

Speaking to reporters Monday morning, McEnany denied that the White House was looking to scale back briefings out of any concern that they were hurting Trump politically. He has been pilloried for a series of false and inflammatory comments he has made at the lengthy appearances, most recently for suggesting an “injection” of disinfectant could help people ill from the novel coronavirus.

Rather, she said, the shift in strategy came about “because we’re entering a phase of reopening.”

“As you know, 25 states have reopening plans, 25 are in the process of issuing new reopening plans. We’re entering a phase of looking to reopen the country. And with that the president will be focusing a lot on the economy,” she said.

McEnany insisted that the president’s appearances to date have “been great” and that there will be more to come this week that she said will serve to “showcase the American people the great entrepreneurship of this president.”

In spite of McEnany’s public denials to the contrary, sources have told ABC News in recent days that advisers to the president have expressed concern that the president’s daily duels with the media in the briefings have been unhelpful.

Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have even publicly offered criticism — albeit limited — of Trump’s handling of the briefings.

Trump himself spent much of his weekend on Twitter brooding about critical media coverage and specifically questioned the utility of the briefings in a weekend tweet, complaining about critical media coverage and complaining that the events are “not worth the time & effort!”

The reassessment in strategy has come after the president’s Thursday briefing where he pondered aloud whether disinfectants could be injected into patients.

“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute,” Trump said Thursday. “And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

The president later claimed the next day he was only being “sarcastic.”

The president then cut Friday’s briefing short after just over 20 minutes of announcements and did not take any questions. And unlike weekends past — save for a break for Easter — he did not hold a daily briefing on Saturday or Sunday.

The communications reassessments comes after six weeks of near-daily press briefings at which the president would tout the administration’s response to the public health crisis and do battle with reporters raising critiques of the administration’s handling of the crisis.

As the White House briefings became a fixture, other federal agencies refrained from holding their own press conferences, deferring to the White House and allowing their chiefs to brief the public in the White House briefing room.

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