WHITE HOUSE - As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the United States, President Donald Trump tries to project an image of a credible leader in control at a time of crisis.
"We're at war with a deadly virus," Trump said on Tuesday, during his almost daily televised briefings from the White House. "Success in this fight will require the full absolute measure of our collective strength, love and devotion," he added.
Last year, the Trump administration abandoned the daily briefing - a long-held White House practice. But now that the pandemic has forced the Trump campaign to stop holding rallies, press briefings have become a substitute for them.
Recent briefings by Trump and his coronavirus task force have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable television news programs.
The president boasted about it on Twitter, prompting some observers to accuse him of trying to politicize the crisis.
"We shouldn't care what the ratings are for a presidential briefing," said Shannon O'Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin. She accused Trump of being more interested in his ratings rather than the rising coronavirus cases and deaths occurring in the United States.
Trump is certainly using the coronavirus briefings to advance his own re-election cause, said Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The pandemic is a black hole - everything has to relate to it to get TV time, and Trump is aware of this," he said.
"He thinks that putting himself in this position, in the homes of Americans every day, will produce a rally around the flag effect because he'll be at the center of this ongoing pandemic," Sabato added.
To a certain degree the strategy has been effective; Trump's overall approval rating is up 5 percentage points, reaching 49 percent in the most recent Gallup poll. Sixty percent of responders gave him positive reviews for his handling of the pandemic.
Critics say the briefings have turned into mini Trump rallies to satisfy the president's ego. The briefings sometimes feature executives of private companies, who support the federal government's pandemic effort. A briefing on Monday included MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whose company will be producing masks.
Lindell, famous for his television ads, stood alongside Trump in the White House Rose Garden.
"God gave us grace on November 8, 2016 to change the course we were on," Lindell said. "Our president gave us so much hope."
Critics point out that beyond self-administered pats on the back, in the briefings Trump also spreads false information about the coronavirus. He touted the drug chloroquine, approved to treat malaria, as a promising and available cure for the virus. The drug hasn't been approved for COVID-19, and Trump's own top coronavirus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said that the evidence for it is "anecdotal."
It has been deeply troubling to see the president initially trying to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic and saying that this is overblown because the media are fake, said O'Brien. During briefings, Trump has doubled down on attacks on the news media, apparently to control the narrative, his critics say.
Still, history shows that incumbents have the advantage during a crisis, and there is an opportunity for the Trump campaign. An image of Trump sending off a massive hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to assist with relief efforts in New York on Saturday, was seen as a particularly effective message, observers say.
They also point out that Trump may be his worst enemy.
If he were more disciplined, and if he stuck to the facts, rather than inventing things, then he would have a better chance of re-election, said Sabato. "He's not going to win in a landslide, that's for sure. He needs to win a couple more percent, in order to ensure his re-election."
The Trump campaign must also deal with negative ads portraying the president's blunders. They recently demanded that TV stations stop airing an ad by a political action committee supporting Democratic presidential candidates, showing coronavirus cases rising as Trump's past comments downplaying the virus played in the background.