Don't expect much from Trump's new briefings

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Here we go again.

President Donald Trump has announced that he's resuming regular pandemic briefings. Quick recap: Trump did these briefings on a daily basis back in the spring when the virus was spreading for the first time; his staff, Republicans in Congress, and virtually everybody else thought that his long, rambling statements and frequent public disagreements with his own experts weren't helping him; the White House tried retooling the briefings to make them better sales pitches for the president; then Trump mused about injecting bleach. End of regular briefings.

Now the president claims he's going to revive them, at least for a while. The bottom line is that, for a normal president, such press conferences are a highly useful procedure. They begin with an opening statement, which means that the White House has to prepare something for the president to say. Knowing that they need to produce news in that statement, and preferably good news, staffers will push all the relevant agencies and departments to come up with achievements they can talk about. Yes, the process can be superficial and even counterproductive. But overall, it's one of the ways that presidents focus the White House and the bureaucracy on getting things done. 

After that the president takes questions. On the surface, this is good because it forces the president to speak about the important policy questions of the day. Perhaps even more important, the White House has to prepare answers to all the questions that are likely to be asked. Just as with the opening statement, this pushes staffers to come up with good answers — answers that make the president look good — which in turn helps them to make decisions, push policies forward and confront issues that have been avoided. It's not just an inside game; outside groups, knowing the president is likely to speak on various topics, will understand that it's time to apply whatever pressure they have. In short: Governing happens. 

Of course, any good politician will have the skills to duck questions from even the most tenacious reporter. So a press conference never exactly forces a decision. But generally, they'll tend to create a set of positive incentives. 

It's not clear how much those incentives apply to this administration. Normal presidents will spin, enhancing small accomplishments to make them seem important, but the truth acts as a constraint. They won't just make something up. Trump doesn't treat the truth as a constraint. Nor does he seem to prep the way normal presidents do. It's possible that briefing books are prepared anyway, but with the president unlikely to read them, no one in the executive branch is likely to feel pressured to take any relevant actions, and I doubt that the White House staff puts serious effort into it. 

Another problem for Trump is that he's likely to spread misinformation. But he tends to do that even without the briefings. What I wouldn't worry much about is any electoral effect. Regardless of who the president is, the audiences are relatively small for such things, and they're likely to be dominated by strong supporters. Of course, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign is also watching. The president has the opportunity to look good; the out-party has the opportunity to take advantage of anything he says that can be used against him.

On balance, I think it's still better for the president to regularly face questions from the press. Realistically, though, it's not apt to make much difference in November.

1. Dave Hopkins on Democrats from the South. One interesting tidbit about these politicians — who are, as he points out, nothing like the old southern Democrats — is that many are apparently not from old southern families. That was very much the case with many of the early waves of southern Republicans, from George H.W. Bush (of Texas … and Connecticut) to Newt Gingrich (Georgia by way of Pennsylvania). 

2. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction has some qualified compliments for the Trump campaign. Makes sense.

3. Steve Vladeck and Benjamin Wittes on what the Department of Homeland Security is doing.

4. Ernie Suggs on John Lewis's time as an Atlanta local politician.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox on the history of quarantines and other drastic measures in the U.S.

6. And also here at Opinion: Michael R. Strain sets out what a sensible Republican relief bill would look like.

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