White House tries and fails to overcome its credibility crisis

When a sitting American president is hospitalized with a potentially deadly virus, and much of his team also tests positive, it is unquestionably a national crisis. And in the midst of a genuine national crisis, citizens need to be able to turn to the authorities for accurate and reliable information that people can trust.

But in the case of Donald Trump’s coronavirus infection, that’s obviously not what’s happening.

What the nation instead confronts is a series of cascading failures: Trump’s failure to take the pandemic seriously led to a failure to prevent the president from being infected, which led to a White House operation that failed to tell the public the truth.

After Trump disclosed his positive test early Friday morning, it seemed inexplicable that there was no press briefing with physicians. A day later, there was a press briefing, which proved to be vastly worse than nothing: when Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician since 2018, wasn’t being evasive, he was offering a series of assertions that he later retracted.

When the osteopathic doctor wrapped up his unfortunate and unhelpful presentation, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows offered a wildly different assessment on the president’s condition, only to see Meadows change direction once more soon after.

Offered a chance to put things right on Sunday, Team Trump made the mess messier. The Washington Post reported overnight that the White House “continued to provide limited and contradictory information” about the president’s health.

At a news conference earlier Sunday, Trump’s medical team tried to clear up the muddled picture it had created the previous day when White House doctor Sean Conley falsely suggested that Trump had not been given supplemental oxygen. But Conley continued to avoid directly answering specific questions about Trump’s health Sunday, even as he revealed that the president had been given dexamethasone, a steroid that is typically reserved for severely ill coronavirus patients needing oxygen. Conley openly admitted to withholding truthful information about Trump’s plummeting blood-oxygen levels Friday, indicating he did so to put a positive spin on the president’s improving condition.

The physician specifically told reporters, “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness, has had. I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”

First, the word “necessarily” seemed to be doing quite a bit of work in that sentence. And second, the idea that the truth might “steer the course of illness in another direction” is every bit as bizarre as it seemed.

In a separate report, senior White House officials — people one might expect to have accurate information about the president’s condition during a national crisis — conceded that they didn’t have confidence in what they were hearing from their own colleagues.

“I can tell you what I am hearing, but I honestly

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