Opinions Live with Eugene Robinson: Brace yourselves for the return of the coronavirus briefing

Jul 21, 2020

Columnist Eugene Robinson will be online every Tuesday at 1 p.m. Eastern for Opinions Live with Eugene Robinson, where he'll talk about the latest political and cultural developments. Catch up on the transcript of his latest chat below.

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Hello, everybody, and welcome to our weekly chat. Well, buckle up. President Trump has decided that the way to reverse his vertiginous dive in the polls is to restart his daily coronavirus briefings. You will recall that those briefings were a political disaster for Trump, and I see no reason to believe it's a good idea to repeat the self-harm, but I guess they are the closest thing to the rallies Trump needs like other people need oxygen, so here he comes. Please don't overreact if he comes out today and manages somehow not to go completely off the rails. See if he can do that for a whole week, or even two days in a row, without some kind of Clorox-and-UV-light kind of disaster. If Trump were capable of conveying competence and empathy on the subject of covid-w9, he would have done so at least once. So far, he hasn't. My guess is that he'll want to boast about his decision to send federal goons in camo gear and unmarked vans to sweep demonstrators off the streets in Portland. Polls show him doing even worse on the racial justice issue than on the virus, so that could be self-harming, too. Let's get started.

Four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, police gunfire killed three students and injured 28 on the S. C. State campus in Orangeburg, SC. The youngest of the three who were murdered by police was 17 year old Delano Middleton, a high school student. His brother is a dear friend of mine. This senseless and horrific event occurred after several days of protests by students not being allowed into a nearby bowling alley. The owner claimed the Civil Rights Act did not apply to his establishment, stating falsely that it was private. Eugene, if I am not mistaken, you lived in this area at the time. My question is: how did this event affect and impact you, your family, and your friends?

This event took place around 500 yards from my house, and it was largely responsible for my becoming a journalist. When I arrived at the University of Michigan two years later, I had to write a 5000-word essay for freshman English. I had never written anything that long and didn't know what to write about, so I decided to tell the story of the Orangeburg Massacre. My English instructor gave me an A and nagged me to enter the essay in a campus wide writing contest called the Hopwood Awards. The essay ended up winning a first-place award. At the same time, I had started writing for the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, and enjoyed it. But the key thing was that the Hopwood came with a prize of... one hundred dollars! That was a semester's worth of spending money in those days, and for the first time in my life a thought occurred to me: You mean you can make a living by writing? I hadn't thought of that as a career before, I'd just thought of it as something everybody did. That's a long-winded explanation, but yes, the Orangeburg Massacre had a profound impact on my life.

There's been some chatter, including on Morning Joe, that if Trump's poll numbers continue to drop/don't improve, he might drop out of the race, rather than risk an historic loss. We'll have to wait and see about that, but I'm wondering, is there somewhere, very quietly and discreetly, a group of Republican officials planning for how they'll handle it if he does drop out? Do you know, for example, if Trump were to drop out, does Pence automatically move up to be the nominee for president?

I believe the GOP would have to choose a new nominee. But I don't think this is going to happen. He seems to be in full self-delusion mode and believe his "secret" voters will form a silent majority to carry him to victory.

It’s become pretty common to see that Trump is “politicizing” something that had previously been sacrosanct (public health, the justice system, international alliances, the census, whatever). However, the idea that Trump is politicizing these things is incorrect. Trump doesn’t politicize anything, he personalizes everything and bullies everyone. He has no thoughts, conscious or unconscious, that extend beyond what he immediately perceives as his self-interest — it’s giving him too much credit to consider a political strategy for his actions. It is Trump’s enablers and lackeys that politicize his obscene whims. I think it’s time we start assigning due blame to those who operationalize his ignorance, lawlessness, bigotry, cruelty,... we can’t let them skate by as if this were all a Trump phenomenon that ends when Trump is gone.

That's a good point. Trump isn't really a political actor. He's just ego and self-interest, lashing out in directions that don't cohere into any kind of political philosophy or strategy.

Posting early but I've got to get this out. Anonymous federal officers are active in Portland, Oregon. They were never invited, the people of Portland and their elected officials want them out, they were apparently never trained in crowd control, and they're allegedly pulling people off the streets into unmarked vans. Where the hell are the expressions of outrage from the Right and the Second Amendment fetishists about this government overreach? I would have thought this was precisely the kind of thing they've been warning us about. Or do their principles only apply to certain American cities, certain Americans, and certain causes?

You answer your own question. If this were a Democratic president doing these things, you would hear a deafening howl of protest from Republicans who saw liberty itself being exterminated. What do you hear from the GOP today? Crickets.

We lost a national treasure. He was a man's man who worked tirelessly for justice and social change. His life was one that was well lived. I see people suggesting the Edmund Pettis Bridge be renamed for him, however, in my opinion he deserves much more. A memorial in Washington or his home state of Georgia seems more fitting.

The best memorial for John Lewis would be to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act after its evisceration by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. John Lewis got his skull fractured on that bridge to secure voting rights for all Americans. That should be his legacy.

It was heartening to see an interviewer prepared to push back on Trump's gaslighting in real time. But in his comments after the interview, Wallace called out Scott Pelley for saying that Trump's statements were disconnected from reality. Interesting that Wallace would criticize this, because it was an entirely accurate, if harsh, characterization. Is Wallace trying to triangulate between MSM and MAGA, or does he genuinely believe that the proper way to push back on gaslighting is to find polite euphemisms for "lie"?

First and foremost, I thought that Chris Wallace did a terrific job in that interview. But yes, he has gone out of his way to say what a "gentleman" Trump was and to criticize Biden for not, in his view, doing enough interviews (although he did one last night with Joy Reid). I could guess that perhaps, having filleted Trump in such a devastating manner, Wallace might not want to pigeonhole himself within the Fox News Universe as a Never Trumper. That didn't work out so well for Shep Smith. And I, for one, think Wallace is more useful inside the Fox tent than he would be outside of it.

Kemp claims the right to overrule Atlanta's mask ban. I'm hoping the law allows the ban to stand, based upon the needs of public health. I feel fortunate to live in a Florida county that required masks early in the pandemic. As dysfunctional as he is, DeSantis did not stand in the way of local governments. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the people of Atlanta.

Georgia Gov. Kemp has taken the most extreme anti-mask position of all the GOP governors. He has even sought to muzzle Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms by seeking an order banning her from speaking out for a mask mandate. The health of the people of Georgia will suffer because of Kemp's radical stance -- and I hope the GOP's political fortunes in the state suffer as well.

can Trump's numbers get any lower if he botches the future briefings like he did the previous briefings? Ed Rollins wrote a very unintentionally funny editorial a couple of weeks ago basically saying that Trump could turn the campaign around if Trump stopped being Trump. Does Ed not see that what he wrote was ridiculous?

I think a strategy that depends on Trump not being Trump is nothing more than a pathetic fantasy. He will not change. It would seem to me that his handlers would want to keep him from repeating a painful mistake -- the coronavirus briefings -- but I guess he doesn't have handlers, just enablers. 

Gene, I'm terrified of what we may be in store for come November: an outbreak of “Portlands” across the country. This president will simply take control (or send his “police” to do so) of various, bluish cities, effectively shutting down polling places and/or intimidating voters into staying home. If he can’t cancel the election (although given the current GOP state, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d run the Constitution through a micro-cut shredder to stay in power), this is probably one of his next best bets. You always say that the surefire way to guarantee his ouster is to vote, and I totally agree, but…what if we _can’t_ vote? How could he get away with this?

If it comes to that, we will just have to insist on voting. There are elections at every level on Nov. 3, and states and localities are going to insist on holding those elections, no matter what Trump might say. It could get ugly. But no, he won't be able to cancel the election.

What an absolutely brilliant move by the Nats to have him throw out the first pitch. An American hero, long time medical expert and public servant, and a huge Nats fan. I'd pay big money to be there in person to see this happen if it was possible.

Dr. Fauci deserves the honor. And I hope he throws a strike.

Did you notice the pale TAN suit that Senator Mitch McConnell was wearing yesterday for his Oval Office visit? When Obama wore one some years ago, you'd have thought it was a quasi-impeachable high crime or misdemeanor. Or perhaps McConnell worried that if he wore a dark suit yesterday, someone might interpret it as mourning for Rep. John Lewis.

I used to have a tan suit. It's perfectly appropriate for a Washington D.C. heat wave like the one we're having -- but looks awful on television. That's my final word on the tan suit controversy.

Exactly WHO are those unidentified federal troops in Portland, Oregon, who've been grabbing demonstrators off the street and putting them in unmarked vehicles? Does DHS have its own troops? Or are these active duty or reserve US military, or members of the National Guard? Or contract security forces (a polite term for mercenaries) employed by private entities like Betsy DeVos's brother's company, or Halliburton, etc.?

They seem to be from various agencies -- TSA, Border Patrol, maybe Bureau of Prisons -- and there is no indication they have any training in urban crowd control. The lack of insignia and the unmarked vans are outrageous. It's the kind of thing that used to happen in Argentina under the military dictatorship, but then the storm troopers arrived in Ford Falcons.

I see the Portland situation as a step to nullifying the election. Why else do it and then escalate it to other cities?

Well, the other reason to do it would be as a performance -- an episode in the Trump Show -- designed to appeal to the "silent majority" that Trump imagines will save his bacon.

He's just going to use them to repeat his lie that our high case numbers are just because we do so much testing. All those other countries with fewer cases just aren't testing as much as we are because Murrica. The base buys it 100%. Any mention of positivity rate falls on deaf ears, plus they can't see past the tip of their noses. Even if it happens to someone in their family/friends...eh. Stuff just happens. It's going to be a complete waste of time so I will just watch the reaction of my favorite Lincoln Project people on twitter as it happens, then catch Sarah Cooper's recap.

The thing is, though, that the segment of the electorate that buys Trump's line on testing is down to his hard-core base of around 35 percent. Good luck winning an election with that.

Does anyone know why it seems that it is Border Patrol that is being used to implement these horrific attacks on people exercising their Constitutional rights? I'm guessing that it is because they have some really, really broad powers to stop and detain people within X number of miles of any border or coastline of the US. It honestly includes much, much too much of the country, though as you can see I don't have the exact number at my finger tips. Is there no requirement at all that they have to have some suspicion that the person is undocumented before they can snatch him or her off the street. And beating someone to the point of broken bones has to be outside their use of force guidelines. I, too, have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the US. Four times. Three each time I was sworn in to a Bar and once as a federal employee. I take it very seriously. The federal thugs make me sick to my stomach.

This sickens me, too. It is unclear under what authority the federal "forces" in Portland are acting. 

I'd like journalists, when they interview Pence or anyone else who would have a vote in an Article 25 proceeding, what their personal threshold is for declaring the President unfit. I'd like these politicians to be on record for when the reckoning comes, and I'd also like them to be on record for when the President transgresses the politicians' personal boundaries.

I'ed like them on record, too, but they won't answer that question. I wish journalists had subpoena power but, alas, we don't.

Trump seems to think that the large ratings number for "his" briefing is evidence of how popular he is. Is not just as likely that many - perhaps most - of those tuned in are there to watch him babble, implode and self destruct?

What would be the use to trying to explain that to the president? It would be beyond his comprehension.

Now that President is planning to resume his political rallies disguised as caronavirus briefings, do you think the reporters will give him the Chris Wallace fact-check treatment, or just let him say whatever he wants?

I can't imagine that Trump will sit for another such interview anytime soon. When he's at the podium at a press conference, he's in control and reporters are at a disadvantage. He can bluster, filibuster, attack, and then call on somebody else. That's what I expect we'll see.

I live in Baltimore, and I saw the president said he was going to send federal troops to the city. I still don't know what the purpose of such troops would be - our protests have been peaceful after the some small vandalism the first few days. Is he going to protect statues of Christopher Columbus throughout town? The only thing that seems likely is that our peaceful protests turn violent as the troops start snatching people off the street into unmarked vans. I am seriously worried about this, as he has shown he has no respect for this city and its residents, and people here are frustrated and worried. And so many people don't even seem to care this is occurring already in Portland (I had very politically engaged friends feeling out of the loop when talked about it), and the potential trouble these troops will stir up feeds right into his false narrative. I can't believe we still have 3+ months until the election.

Do not be intimidated. These are bully tactics, and the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him. Exercise your rights.

It appears Trump wants to make this an election ENTIRELY about law and order. What can the leadership of BLM and other activists do to tamp down the violence as in the rioting and looting which Trump will make the focal point of his grievance? Momentum right now is on the side of civil rights; what can be done to reduce the extemism which often comes with activism. John Lewis's example of good trouble needs to be the model.

There are no violent protests taking place in Chicago or Atlanta or Baltimore. There is no looting. Portland is Portland, but before the federal goons arrived the protests were down to a few dozen diehards. Trump is making a big show of "solving" a problem that does not exist.

Obviously, things have gotten very bad over the past few weeks. Trump has continued to downplay the severity of the virus, and has cast aside stats showing its massive reemergence, and claimed that states with spikes in cases are just 'embers.' That said, he's now resuming his coronavirus briefings in the wake of dwindling poll numbers. What do you expect from his briefings, and do you think that they'll do more to hurt his reelection chances than help them?

Last time, the briefings were a political disaster for the president. I see no reason to believe that this time things will be different.

As a white woman in her 70s, I recall watching on our tiny black-and-white TV in the 50s the fire hoses and dogs unleashed agains black protesters. Those images have *never* left me. My father was a bigot, but I turned 180 degrees in the other direction and I've never looked back. The loss of the courageous and brilliant John Lewis saddens me greatly, but it also leaves me grateful that this country -- all of us, no matter who we are -- had him in our lives. The same sentiments are for C.T. Vivian, with whom I was not familiar. They are the ones who belong as statues and whose names belong on buildings. RIP, John Lewis. RIP C.T. Vivian.


Good afternoon Mr. Robinson, It is my opinion that the Republican party will be dealing with the Trump influence long after he leaves offices. He is going to keep his 38% base for the rest of his life and can wreak havoc within the GOP until he dies. What are your thoughts on the future of the party as it relates to the Trump influence after he is gone from office?

He won't keep his whole base, but he might keep enough of it to be profitable. I'm thinking Trump TV, something like that.

Based on information you have right now what are the chances Biden takes the White House, the Senate flips and the House grows stronger?

Right now? Very good chance, good chance, good chance. 

Do you have any vision or thoughts how about how and when this pandemic will cease or at least the prevalence of the coronavirus shrink to allow for a broadly functioning society? I personally doubt a new vaccine will bring any quick relief--except may be at the level of a general morale booster.

I fear we're in this for the long haul. By the New Year, if we are lucky, we can be in a "new normal" mode of coexisting with the virus. By fall 2021, I'm hoping, maybe we can hope to be putting this horror behind us. But that might be overly optimistic.


That's it for today, folks. Our time is up. thanks, as always, for participating, and I'll see you next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2009, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" (2010), "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson lives with his wife and two sons in Arlington.
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