Grisham defends tougher Trump stance

This is a rush transcript from "MediaBuzz," March 22, 2020. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: This is a Fox News alert. I'm Howard Kurtz in Washington. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is about to brief reporters on the situation in his state, the hardest hit by the coronavirus. Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, is speaking as well. In a dip into Governor Cuomo (Inaudible) this as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. passed the 26,000 mark this morning.

Vice President Pence and his wife Karen said last night they have tested negative for the virus. Hawaii has offered -- ordered a mandatory two week quarantine for all new arrivals, Italy reporting 793 more deaths just yesterday, the largest one-day increase by far. And NBC audio technician, Larry Edgeworth, has died after contracting the coronavirus. His wife said he also suffered from other health ailments.

President Trump in recent days has been taking a much tougher and far more aggressive stance against the coronavirus, and he told reporters he's always taken the virus seriously.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a pandemic. I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.


KURTZ: But a review of the president's comments in January, February, and earlier this month suggest otherwise.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you worried about a pandemic at this point?

TRUMP: No, not at all. And we have it totally under control. It is one person coming in from China. And we have it under control. It's going to be just fine. Now, the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right, coronavirus. And this is their new hoax.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you concerned that the virus is getting closer to the White House and D.C.?

TRUMP: No, I'm not concerned at all. No, I'm not. You know, we've done a great job.


KURTZ: The president is no longer soft-pedalling the magnitude of this crisis, saying the virus could last until July or August.


TRUMP: We have a problem that a month ago nobody ever thought about. This is a bad one. This is a very bad one. This is bad in the sense that it's so contagious.


KURTZ: And many in the media welcoming the president's new and sharper tone.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today and yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president's tone has changed. This is not something that should be applauded necessarily or, frankly, something that should be expected to continue. This is where he should have been all along.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president was sober. He actually -- he did what a president's supposed to do. He delivered the bad news.


KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington is Stephanie Grisham, the White House Press Secretary. Welcome, I may have to interrupt our conversation to get to -- to cover Governor Cuomo for at least a couple of minutes. As I said, many people in the media are welcoming, even praising the president's new and more aggressive tone, even as some journalists say he should have been speaking and acting this way much earlier. What caused the shift?

STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You know I don't know that there was a shift per se. You've got to remember. The president, he declared a national health emergency in January. He took his decisive action to shut down the borders with China very, very early. And he's taken many bold actions since then, including shutting down borders with Europe.

So he has acted appropriately as we have learned and had new developments about this virus.

KURTZ: But, you know, many programs have played clips similar to what I just did. Many have written stories in which the president said things like we have totally got it under control. So it does seem -- you know -- take my word for it. It seems, to many people, Stephanie, that earlier he was not where he is today in terms of the full scale mobilization.

GRISHAM: Well, the virus we -- the virus wasn't where it was today at the beginning either. And I would also say I don't know why the media has to continue to look backwards. You've got to --


KURTZ: All right. Let me pause you right there. Let me pause you right there. Governor Andrew Cuomo.


KURTZ: We'll continue to monitor Governor Cuomo's briefing in New York. He's been doing this daily. Let's bring back Stephanie Grisham, the White House Press Secretary. You just heard Andrew Cuomo say that the federal government should nationalize the acquisition of medical supplies because the states can't do it on their own.

The states are competing among themselves for masks and so forth. Is that something that could be under consideration?

GRISHAM: Well, I mean, we'll see what happens. The task force is meeting every day, multiple times a day. I've got to tell you. And I want to tell the public that this administration has been working around the clock with the leadership of the vice president and the president, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People are not stopping.

So they're doing everything they can to help keep the country safe and healthy. That is the president's priority. So they've been working on that. And we'll see what happens. We'll see what next steps have to be taken.

KURTZ: Before we interrupted for Governor Cuomo, you were about to make a point about the press focusing on various things the president had to say in January, February, and much of March, which they say didn't match the coming crisis even though there weren't that many cases in the U.S. You want to pick up that point?

GRISHAM: Yeah. I would just want to say that the president didn't have a crystal ball there. And he has acted appropriately. He has acted appropriately from the beginning. As I said, he started in January and declared a public health emergency. So he started back in January, working towards how important this virus has become for our country.

And he has only ramped up those efforts. Again, the task force is meeting every singling day. They're briefing the public every single day, including the president. All they're focused on is to make sure that the American people are getting the information. I don't think it's appropriate right now for the press to be going backwards.

There's no reason to go backwards and figure out tick-tocks of what happened when. We've got a crisis on our hands. We've got a coronavirus in this country. And the press should -- they have got a real opportunity, if you ask me, to also spread great information to this public and give information that our task force is trying to get out there.

KURTZ: Right. Well, journalists would say that looking at the record is part of our scrutiny. But let's get the specifics here. So the president the other day really got into it with NBC's White House Correspondent, Peter Alexander, as you know. He had asked a question about the president was talking about a couple of malaria drugs.

He doesn't know whether they would be effective against coronavirus but was willing to support further research. He said are you giving false hope to people over these drugs? And then Alexander said that what do you have to say to millions of scared Americans. The president said Peter Alexander had asked a nasty question and he was a terrible reporter. What was nasty about those questions?

GRISHAM: Well, I want to point out before I answer that question. The president just the day before, I believe it was or prior to the day before to that, had said that he felt that the media coverage was actually pretty fair. So he has given credit where it's due. In that instance, the fact that he, a reporter, is asking if he's giving false hope to the American people, I think that was inappropriate.

He's the commander-in-chief. He is at the helm of this country. And it is his job as president to try and comfort this country. And make sure that they know that they're working towards options that will help people. It is his job to show, not only leadership, but try to calm the American people. So to come after him and say he's giving false hope, I think, was wildly inappropriate. And I believe that's how he reacted the way he did.

KURTZ: Well, it was a question. Now, CNN's John King reacted by calling the president's response to Peter Alexander BS. He used the actual word on the air. And MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said cable news shouldn't even carry these virus briefings live, because she says the president is spreading misinformation, your response?

GRISHAM: Well, the irony there about -- now, they shouldn't have briefings is not lost on me, certainly. But it doesn't surprise me that either of those networks or that cable channel would attack him. And that's not the point. Right now, they need to set aside their bias against this president. And we need to do what this White House is doing and show leadership and try to get information to the American public. That is your job as journalists.

KURTZ: At another briefing, the president responded to a question from One America News about whether some in the media was supposedly siding with Chinese Communist Party propaganda, by ripping into the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and saying they are siding with China. What did he mean?

GRISHAM: There have been many, many outlets that have printed that the Chinese government is doing all that they can and that they are showing leadership towards this virus, and that's not the case. There's also, you know, there have been reporters who have jumped to calling it the Chinese virus racist. He was talking about that.

Again, this is the media outlets ripping into the president because they can. This is why earlier he called it a hoax. He didn't call the virus a hoax. He called the way the Democrats and media are treating it as just another hoax and that they're trying to take him down. This president is focused on the American people, so should the media, period.

KURTZ: Well, I would just point out that those three papers, among many others, have reported about the lies and the cover-up and the censorship and suppression of China in the early outbreak there. And that Beijing has booted out reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. But let me move on, because with the sever stock market losses, much of the country shut down.

The president is pushing a financial rescue plan on the Hill, could cost almost a trillion and a half dollars to taxpayers, to small businesses, to affected industries. Hasn't the Republican Party always been against what some call big government bailouts?

GRISHAM: I think that they still are, but this is an unusual situation. And when you've got people who are being told to stay home, especially small businesses, you've got people in the service industry who are not able to work. It's important that we take care of those people. The president has said many times that the economy will bounce back. He believes that to be true.

Under his leadership, he has made our economy boom. So we're able to do this. Again, I think this is just an extraordinary circumstance. And it's very important that the people of this country are taken care of right now.

KURTZ: Stephanie, you also work for the first lady. Rick Wilson, an anti- Trump Republican pundit, took aim the other day at Melania Trump who, of course, has her BE BEST campaign, after an announcement that she would involved in public service announcements about the coronavirus, if we can put this up. He tweeted her picture with the hashtag be infected. A lot of criticism, he refused to apologize, your reaction.

GRISHAM: I think it shows what a small fraction of a man he is. We're in a crisis right now. And Mrs. Trump is doing what she always does. She's working to try and help children and families especially understand that this is temporary. And there are things that people can be doing at home. The fact that he did that, I really do hope that the particular cable network that he goes on.

I hope that Don Lemon especially will insist on not having him on anymore. If a Republican -- excuse me, would have done that to somebody, it would be headline news everywhere. This has already been forgotten. But again, the bottom line is Mrs. Trump, the president, the vice president, this entire White House, is focused on this country. And if people want to be small and petty about it, you know, that's their choice.

KURTZ: All right. I've got about 20 seconds. The president, of course, is entitled to criticize any media coverage he wants. But at this time of crisis and anxiety in America, might it be better if he can just try to stay above the fray in terms of dealing with the press?

GRISHAM: I think he has stayed above the fray. I think he's gone out every single day and faced the press. He has absolutely stayed above the fray. But when he is working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and he sees doctors and everybody in our administration working and the press are choosing to attack him on occasion, that's going to frustrate him.

And he's going to fight back and he's going to defend what we're doing. And I think that's absolutely warranted.

KURTZ: Right.

GRISHAM: The press, the media, our administration, everybody should be working for this country together.

KURTZ: Well, you're defending the administration as well. You do it well. We appreciate you coming on, Stephanie Grisham, White House Press Secretary.

GRISHAM: Thank you.

KURTZ: And we will return now with this Fox News alert to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Governor of New York, briefing reporters in Albany.


KURTZ: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo scolding people in New York City for getting together in large numbers in places like Central Park, also calling on the federal government to nationalize the acquisition of medical supplies, saying the states can't do it on their own.

Let's bring in our guests now. We have Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist here in Washington, also Ray Suarez, former PBS NewsHour correspondent, and in Los Angeles, radio talk show host Leslie Marshall.

Let me start with Mollie and Ray. I want to go back to President Trump and the briefings this week on the coronavirus. I mentioned earlier a reporter, Chanel Rion from One America News asking the president whether he considers the term "Chinese food" racist as a way of ridiculing the critics of the president using the term "Chinese virus," and here's how it went down.


CHANEL RION, OAN CORRESPONDENT: Major left-wing news media even in this room have teamed up with Chinese communist party narratives and they are claiming you're racist.  DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It amazes me when I read The Wall Street Journal, which is always so negative. It amazes me when I read The New York Times is not even -- I don't -- I barely read it. The Washington Post is going wild lately. I don't know what happened to them. They are siding with China.


KURTZ: Mollie, the president says these newspapers who have just been banned by Beijing are siding with China. Do you see any evidence of that?

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR, SENIOR EDITOR AT THE FEDERALIST, SENIOR JOURNALISM FELLOW AT HILLSDALE COLLEGE: Well, first of all, there are differences between each of these papers. I think if you look at their front page, The Wall Street Journal tends to play it pretty straight. The New York Times and The Washington Post less so. They do a lot of critical analysis of the president.

We're really seeing that this is a complex moment and our media are not particularly up to the challenge. Already, you know, even if it's an apolitical story, they sensationalize things. They are unable to provide context. That's even true if it's like a shark attack.

When you're dealing with a complicated public health, economic, constitutional issues like what we're going through now, they're just not doing a particularly good job, and their need for Trump to fail at all costs which they've shown that they are obsessed with for the last several years --


HEMINGWAY: -- makes it particularly problematic.

KURTZ: Ray, there's a difference between criticizing the media coverage as the president does all the time and saying that these organizations are siding with China. What are your thoughts?

RAY SUAREZ, KQED CO-HOST, FORMER PBS NEWS CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  It's just a ramping up of the same kind of rhetoric that was present in the briefing room earlier in the Trump administration. If you look carefully at the pages of all three newspapers, you'll find reported the attempts of the Chinese government to cover up the spread in Wuhan in the early days of the virus.

You'll find reporting on the extensive measures that the Chinese government took to throttle freedom of movement and freedom of speech when it would have helped to have people able to speak freely about how to respond to the virus. And you'll see reporting about how China is now today trying to win the PR battle by pivoting toward giving materials and supplies and advice - -

KURTZ: Right.

SUAREZ: -- to countries around the world that are having problem to response --

KURTZ: Let me jump in because I'm coming up on a hard break. Leslie, half a minute, Joe Biden says he's going to start doing coronavirus briefing himself tomorrow. He and the campaign have basically been kind of wiped off the radar by the coronavirus. Would you agree?

LESLIE MARSHALL, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, yeah, absolutely. But Joe Biden doesn't suffer from this as much as Senator Sanders does because he wasn't out there doing as many big rallies and also Senator Sanders is still a sitting senator and has work to do --

KURTZ: Right.

MARSHALL: -- so Joe Biden can focus on giving that message which does start on Monday, you are correct.

KURTZ: All right. Let me get the hard break in here, and we'll be back on the other side.


KURTZ: At the White House, NBC's Peter Alexander asked whether the president was giving people a false sense of hope by touting the possible effects of two malaria drugs on the coronavirus, and then this happened.


PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What do you say to Americans who are scared though? I guess nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?

D. TRUMP: I say that you're a terrible reporter. That's what I say.


D. TRUMP: I think it's a very nasty question, and I think it's a very bad signal that you're putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they're looking for hope. And you're doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and Comcast. I don't call it Comcast. I call it "con-cast."


KURTZ: Mollie Hemingway, what does the president get out of saying this was a nasty question? It wasn't in fact a nasty or unfair question.

HEMINGWAY: Well, in a vacuum, the question was totally fine. The three minutes preceding that question, which were full of making the worst case about what Trump was doing, accusing him of trying to harm the American people, it was the part that I think bothered the president.

And it's important when people report about it, that they do include that context of what led up to this moment. And this general approach of being so negative against the president, I think, doesn't wear as well as a lot of people in the media think it does.

KURTZ: Ray Suarez, your thoughts on that stuff with the NBC reporter, but also Stephanie Grisham telling me earlier that she doesn't think it's appropriate for the media to be looking back at the president who some say minimized this for weeks and weeks and weeks. Is that part of our job or should we be just focused on today and tomorrow?  SUAREZ: If you're press secretary for somebody who has said wrong, incorrect, and misleading things about the state of play for months, that's probably a good position to take. We were not at 15 cases on our way to zero when he said it. A test was not available to every American who wanted one when he said it. It's not each true today. So why wouldn't Stephanie Grisham suggest that we shouldn't keep looking back?

The job for any president is to be careful, consistent and credible, and I guess we can do a post-mortem when this is all over or whether the president succeeded --

KURTZ: That will have to wait. Leslie Marshall, I asked you about Joe Biden. He won Florida, Illinois and Arizona this week and barely any coverage. Has the coronavirus basically frozen the presidential campaign right now?

MARSHALL: No. The coronavirus has taken over as the leading news item because it's affecting so many people. It's so rapid, it's unprecedented. It is nothing that we've ever seen in any of our lifetimes because the last epidemic or pandemic on this level was about 100 years ago, according to my husband, the doctor, and other medical professionals. People are frightened --

KURTZ: All right.

MARSHALL: If I can weigh in quick --

KURTZ: You can't.

MARSHALL: -- I think a leader --

KURTZ: You can't because the computer is going to cut us off.

MARSHALL: -- a leader has to calm the nation.

KURTZ: Thank you so much. We'll see you next week with more about it with more "MediaBuzz."

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