- President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 early on Friday.
- Experts say his history of downplaying the pandemic could make it difficult for him and his administration to be trusted as they navigate the president’s illness.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
President Donald Trump could struggle to navigate a public image as a “strong leader” as he deals with a COVID-19 diagnosis in part due to his previous lies.
Experts told Business Insider that Trump’s history of false statements to the American public, especially his downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic itself, could prove an obstacle to renewing trust in him and his administration.
“I think that there, the White House [communications] for the last few years has had a credibility problem from time to time. And in times of a crisis, nothing’s more important than your credibility,” Fred Cook, director of the Center for Public Relations at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told Business Insider.
“And I think the way this is being handled raises some questions with the American public about what’s really going on. There’s a lack of information. There are no details being passed along that would make you feel reassured that things were under control.”
Karen North, a communications professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told Insider that because Trump’s stance on the pandemic has been dismissive of the threat, he can’t change tune quickly.
“He’s out of commission on a topic that just went in opposition to his rhetoric. And so they now have a messaging problem, and they’re going to have to figure out what their message is going to be. Given the reality of the circumstances that hit them,” North said.
His administration will have to find a way to mitigate his position, with the reality of his circumstance, and what the country needs from him as a leader, she said.
North added that Trump having the virus could hit the Republican Party hard. Trump is the engine of its fundraising and central to its branding.
A small victory for Team Trump was the optics created around his flight to the hospital, North observe. His team did a good job from a messaging perspective when the president walked out alone, dressed in a suit-“not like a patient”-to board a helicopter to Walter Reed Hospital on Friday, she said.
Trump will stay at the hospital for several days out of an “abundance of caution,” the White House said in a statement.
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2020
A video of him taken at the White House and tweeted by the president sends a message that the president is feeling good enough to stand on his own, which is a good image for him.
“He looked ready for business. No crisis — like that’s a signaling,” North said. “They signaled to the world that there is no crisis because he didn’t need help. He didn’t look sick. He wasn’t dressed in clothes that meant that he was being rushed from one bed to another. So they did a lot of good sort of imagery like photo op imagery.”
Cook said that there would be opportunities for Trump and his administration to regain some credibility.
“In a situation like this, but it depends on how quickly they address, address the facts and speak out,” Cook said.