“You can't con people, at least not for long,” reads a passage from Donald Trump’s ghostwritten 1987 business advice memoir, The Art of the Deal. “You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
Trump has a long history -- as a businessman and president -- of making bold promises without firm plans of how to actually make good on his boasts. Before he took office in 2017, Trump claimed that his replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act would be “insurance for everybody,” regardless of their ability to pay. He promised it would be “great health care” that was “much less expensive and much better.” Now, of course, he didn’t actually have a plan that accomplished any of those things, but it made for some short-term positive press.
There’s a term for this: vaporware.
“Vaporware,” for those unfamiliar, describes a product being advertised long before it’s available for purchase. While the term can be used to describe just about anything, it has its origins in the tech world, where long-awaited new features and devices are sometimes unveiled long before the final product even exists (if it ever does). One example of this is Apple’s AirPower, a wireless charging pad for Apple devices that was announced in September 2017, but never made it to market.
Donald Trump is a vaporware president.
His $1 trillion infrastructure proposal? Vaporware. His plan to end birthright citizenship by executive order? Vaporware. His tax cut for the middle class ahead of midterms? Vaporware. His ban on e-cigarettes? Anti-vaping vaporware.
And nowhere is this form of fact-free salesmanship more obvious than in Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which is a problem that has been exacerbated by news outlets carrying the president's misinformation-filled press briefings live and promoting his empty boasts in tweets and articles.
Trump’s false promises show just how little attention he pays to his own advice.
On February 25, Trump claimed, “We’re very close to a vaccine.” The White House later walked that statement back, saying that he was referring to an Ebola vaccine. In addition to coverage provided by outlets that took Trump's comments live, CBS News published an article on its website uncritically presenting Trump's boasts: “With fears of coronavirus sweeping the globe and hitting the markets, Mr. Trump claimed without elaborating that 'we're very close to a vaccine.' He also said that the coronavirus is well under control in the U.S.”
During a March 6 visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trump told reporters, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” He repeated this claim on March 10, saying, “And when people need a test, they can get a test. When the professionals need a test, when they need tests for people, they can get the test. It's gone really well.” This was not true at the time. In fact, there is still a major testing shortage in the U.S., leading Los Angeles county to abandon a strategy of even trying to contain the virus. Nevertheless, outlets like The Hill and NBC's Meet the Press posted videos of his comments to Twitter without clarification.
During Trump’s March 11 Oval Office address, he claimed that insurance companies “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments.” Trump was echoing a claim made a day earlier by Vice President Mike Pence, which was itself false. Insurance companies had agreed to waive co-payments for testing, not treatment. A number of outlets, including ABC News and The Washington Post, published tweets containing Pence's March 10 claims.
On March 13, Trump took a jab at the bumpy rollout of Healthcare.gov, bragging that “Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.” Trump claimed that Google had 1,700 engineers working on the site, and that they had “made tremendous progress.” These statements were also false, though Google did later try to provide cover for the president. Outlets like USA Today and Reuters covered Trump's March 13 comments as he said them.
On March 18, the president claimed that a naval hospital ship named Mercy was being sent to New York to help provide medical care and that another ship called the Comfort would be moving up the West Coast. Aside from confusing which ship was on which coast (he had them flipped), Trump again oversold his announcement. Though he claimed the ships were in “tip-top shape,” the Comfort was undergoing maintenance and the Mercy was without a medical crew at the time of his announcement, and NBC News reported that it was “anybody’s guess” when the ships would actually be available to carry out the type of mission described by Trump. Even so, CBS Evening News opened its March 18 broadcast with a story on this announcement.
A March 13 letter signed by 57 House Democrats called on Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA) to direct private sector companies to produce personal protective equipment and other needed medical supplies. Trump opened the March 18 press briefing to announce he was invoking the DPA “just in case we need it,” and he issued an executive order later that day. Again, Trump exaggerated what he was doing. On March 20, he told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) that he planned to put the DPA “into gear,” but on March 22, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor clarified on CNN’s State of the Union that Trump had not actually enforced the DPA in response to the pandemic.
During Trump’s March 19 press briefing, he claimed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved a drug called hydroxychloroquine for use in treating COVID-19. Immediately following the briefing, the FDA clarified that it had not approved that drug for COVID-19 use. While the FDA's clarification was relatively quick, it didn't stop outlets like ABC News and Bloomberg from sharing Trump's false boast on Twitter.
News outlets are doing more harm than good by airing Trump’s addresses and press conferences live and credulously repeating his vaporware in articles and tweets.
He misled the public on the severity of the virus. He misinformed about the vaccine timetable. He repeatedly lied about when the public would have access to coronavirus tests. He misled on the topic of hospital ships, claimed he was using a wartime law to address the medical supply shortage, and falsely asserted that the FDA had approved a drug for use fighting the virus.
Trump's daily briefings have reportedly been a ratings boon for the networks airing them. But as The New York Times explained in an article about the ongoing debate over whether outlets should continue to air the events live, Trump has delivered to that huge audience “information that doctors and public health officials have called ill-informed, misleading or downright wrong.”
Journalists need to ask themselves what they would do if it was anybody other than the president saying these things. Would you continue to air these comments live? Would you run headlines trumpeting the claims as fact? Trump the president is the same person as Trump the businessman. But at least when he was a businessman and reality TV star, journalists knew better than to take his claims at face value.
The fact that many news outlets continue to run his press conferences live despite being misled so many times before serves as something of a debunk to Trump’s claim that “you can't con people, at least not for long.” He’s certainly created “excitement,” he’s done “wonderful promotion,” he’s gotten “all kinds of press,” but he hasn’t delivered “the goods” -- now it’s time for journalists to catch on.