At Thursday’s COVID Press Briefing, the President set off a firestorm of criticism by wondering aloud about the potential for applying new laboratory findings about the lifecycle of SARS-COV-2 into innovative treatment approaches for COVID-19. His open-ended questions asked about the applicability of using “light and heat to cure [coronavirus]” or using a disinfectant “injection inside or almost a cleaning” to help with the “tremendous number [COVID-19 does] on the lungs.”
Quickly – and predictably – the narrative within the press and among the President’s detractors became “President Trump claims injecting people with disinfectant could treat coronavirus” (he didn’t) or even more disingenuous, there was talk of “Trump’s dangerous suggestion” (he didn’t) and then ultimately that narrative devolved into “Trump tells people to consume bleach.” Nonsense. The media intimating he was doing any of these things is being dishonest and agenda-driven.
Let’s be clear: it wasn’t “Hey Dr Brix, we should inject Clorox into people!”, and in no way was the President even suggesting a treatment recommendation, he was just directing his staff to “check that”. The caveat for having doctors “look at it” was clearly there throughout his remarks.
And as much as some of his supporters might wish it to be true, he also wasn’t talking about the Cedars Sinai trial for a lung based UV-wand (which is indeed a thing), he isn’t talking about bronchial lavage (which is indeed a thing), and he wasn’t talking about ultraviolet blood irradiation (UBI), which is also a thing around since the 1940’s.
He was just talking. Out loud. With whatever comes into his mind. We need to have an honest discussion about the President’s penchant for an unfiltered “stream of consciousness” from the podium, or more colorfully, your “diarrhea the mouth”. This shoot-from-the-hip and take no prisoners style has endeared him to his supporters who see his willingness to “tell it like it is” as one of his most endearing qualities.
But on Friday, the President walked back his comments by incredibly claiming they were sarcasm: “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen.” It was a rare retreat for a President who has been largely unwilling to publicly correct himself or acknowledge his missteps. The cover story of sarcasm was tenuous at best.
It was 1913 when Justice Louis Brandeis penned the famous words “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” in an article for Harper’s Weekly. Ironic in the present context, the words were written in a different time and were for a different context – but those words have become synonymous with calls for transparency among our public officials.
And now, in the interest of transparency, it must be said: No Mr. President, it wasn’t sarcasm. The American people know better, and deserve better.
Anyone looking at the President’s remarks honestly can clearly see the President wasn’t seeking to develop UV pens like Tommy Lee Jones used in Men in Black or water board people w/ Clorox. The President’s tendency to interject his ideas or thoughts or ask “out of the box” questions comes from a genuine desire to help and his often stated belief that his “very good brain” has unique insights. Here’s the rub: that’s actually a sign of a very good leader.
When I heard the President’s remarks, I immediately cringed. I didn’t cringe because the President was foolish, I didn’t cringe because he was recommending something unsafe, and I didn’t cringe because I knew he had just launched a new media cycle – I cringed because I’ve been there before.
As a young officer in a technical field (cyber security in its infancy) I had to repeatedly brief senior & general officers on some pretty novel concepts. They were smart, accomplished, and certainly worthy of the respect their rank afforded them – but they were also generalists (or worse, fighter pilots) and often knew very little about the topic I was briefing. Almost always they were wired as problem solvers and genuinely wanted to help advance the mission. Sometimes they were the personality type that needed to appear just as smart as everyone else in the room. I fielded my share of dumb questions and dutifully endured my share of pontifications by people who knew far less than me (on the particular narrow topic of my own expertise). Let’s just say I “felt that” when they zoomed in on Dr Birx.
Over time, I’ve come to understand this is what we pay senior leaders to do. The President’s tendency toward this is a laudable leadership quality even if it’s occasionally cringe worthy for the “experts in the room”, or in this case the “armchair experts” at home. But the fact that he does it in this setting is becoming ridiculous. Like sausage making, we actually don’t want to see it being done.
A good leader will ask out of the box questions without fear of looking dumb and push his staff to think outside of their silos. In many cases the leader is getting such diverse data they are uniquely positioned to draw connections. There is nothing wrong with assimilating in real time that the virus is killed by sunlight and disinfectant, and then asking the experts to evaluate if there might be ways to transfer what was done in the lab setting into the human body.
But please Mr President, do this in private. The off the cuff “brainstorming” at the public briefings is becoming increasingly irresponsible, and the inability of the press to resist treating it like catnip – reflective of their own deep irresponsibility – makes these moments even more distracting in this time of crisis.
Matt Beebe served as a countermeasures engineer in the Air Force and a contractor in the intelligence community before launching an IT and computer security firm in San Antonio, Texas. He is active in Texas politics and can be found on Twitter at @votebeebe”.