As Trump is treated for coronavirus, the press can’t lose sight of the nationwide story

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A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

The president’s health crisis is undoubtedly the biggest single story in the United States right now. But it should not blot out the broader coronavirus story.

Along with the cooler temperatures that drive people indoors, there are worrying trends across the US. “In many states, local and state leaders are reporting worrying milestones,” CNN’s Christina Maxouris and Jason Hanna reported over the weekend.

Wisconsin is emerging as a hotspot: The state reported 2,892 new cases on Saturday, “a record number.” In Kentucky, the governor said his state “shattered” the previous case record. In New York City, the mayor said he wanted to lock down certain hot spots in the city.

Overall, “in the past five days of reporting nationwide, there have been a total of 232,657 cases of coronavirus reported, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. That is the most cases in a five day period reported since mid-August,” per CNN’s Chuck Johnston.

The daily new-case count surpassed 50,000 on Friday. And on Saturday, there were 49,994 new cases reported nationwide, according to JHU. The virus is tightening its grip on many parts of the continental US. And the fall is just beginning, so expect that grip to get even tighter. The president’s diagnosis should be reported in that context…

>> Big picture: More than 7.3 million people have been infected nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins data. More than 209,000 people have died.

Trump said “the end of the pandemic is in sight”

That’s what he said in a pre-recorded video on Thursday for the Al Smith Dinner. Based on what we know about the timeline of his illness, he was already infected when he made the faulty claim.

In a new video, posted to Twitter on Sunday evening, Trump said “I learned a lot about Covid” by getting sick. He went on to say “I get it, and I understand it, and it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” Right after he recorded that comment, he went for a ride…

The “double take”

Ana Cabrera was anchoring on CNN, interviewing James Clapper and David Gergen, when there was a surprise convoy of vehicles on the live camera shot from outside Walter Reed. Cabrera told me she did a “double take” as she saw the president waving to his supporters from his armored SUV. “Hey, you guys,” she said as she interrupted to explain the surprise appearance. The control room re-racked the tape and slowed it down so viewers could see Trump more clearly. “We don’t know where he is going,” Cabrera pointed out, since the press was given no notice. And that lack of notice was a real problem…

“Outrageous” breach of press pool protocol

Minutes later, the WH press corps was told that Trump was back at the hospital. But there was a period of time when the media was in the dark because Trump abandoned the “protective pool,” the small group of reporters that is supposed to travel with the president at all times.

“It is outrageous for the president to have left the hospital — even briefly — amid a health crisis without a protective pool present to ensure that the American people know where their president is and how he is doing,” WHCA president Zeke Miller said in a statement. “Now more than ever, the American public deserves independent coverage of the president so they can be reliably informed about his health.”

>> Earlier in the day, Miller joined me on “Reliable Sources” and pointed out that this crisis affirms the importance of the press pool: “They are the eyes and ears of the American people.”

>> There have been more positive Covid tests among journalists since the three cases that were reported on Friday, Miller said. I noted that WH reporters took the proper Covid precautions this spring and summer while Trump did not…

A reckless publicity stunt

Later in the evening, I said to Cabrera that this was not Ronald Reagan waving from the window to reassure the American people about his well-being. This was more like Michael Jackson dangling a baby over a balcony. This was a bizarre publicity stunt that put others in danger.

I also want to go back to what Clapper was saying on CNN right as this stunt was taking place: “There are huge stakes riding on his condition. Adversaries of course are watching this carefully… it does present an opportunity for mischief.”

View from the WH press corps

I asked CNN WH correspondent Kaitlan Collins what this weekend was like. Here’s what she told me: “Within 48 hours this weekend, the president’s physician had to clarify a statement he made about his diagnosis timeline; the chief of staff attempted to anonymously provide information that contradicted that physician; and two communications officials contradicted each other on whether they would disclose how many White House staffers tested positive.”

The dysfunction didn’t end there. On Sunday, “after informing reporters there would be no further presidential movements, the White House also organized a last-minute trip for the president, violating a longstanding protocol that where the president goes, the press goes, too,” Collins wrote. “And officials wouldn’t tell us something as simple as when the president last received a negative test result. They wouldn’t say if he was tested the day of the debate. They wouldn’t say if he was tested before he flew to New Jersey Thursday. At a time when answers matter the most, taxpayer funded officials are withholding more information than they are revealing.”

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