After nearly two hours last Wednesday, President Donald Trump walked away from the podium following another White House coronavirus briefing.
Seconds later, his campaign’s digital operation went live with its online show.
“Good evening everyone, and welcome to the army for Trump digital bootcamp,” an energetic Erin Perrine, the Trump campaign’s principal deputy communications director, said at the top of one of the team’s new daily online shows.
It's a virtual hand-off between the president and his campaign that's become routine each night. As the perpetual daily press briefings continue, Trump's re-election team has found a way to capitalize on the attention generated online from the briefings by strategically airing nighty digital events that effectively serve as a post-game show for the president’s loyal base.
Last week, Trump held a White House press briefing each day, some for over two hours. And each night, Trump’s team followed up his remarks with a string of slickly produced digital shows across social media aimed at reinforcing messaging around his coronavirus response, blasting presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and firing up supporters while campaign rallies remain on hold.
And like Trump’s now-daily press briefings, which have reached “Bachelor Finale” ratings as the president often points out, and routinely veer into political taking points that would be at home at one of his rallies, the president's campaign’s daily shows also rake in big numbers thanks to the team’s large digital operation—averaging about 1 million views each between streams on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and MIXER, and Facebook, according to the campaign.
A significant amount of that viewership stems from the president’s dominant reach on Facebook, a tool campaign manager Brad Parscale harnessed in 2016.
Each show is hosted by Trump campaign staff including the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, communications director Tim Murtaugh, senior advisor Katrina Pierson, and national Trump Victory finance chair Kimberly Guilfoyle and features guests from Trumpworld ranging from MyPillow’s Mike Lindell, to Donald Trump Jr., to Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
The campaign uses the events to reiterate similar talking points stemming from the White House, often echoing the president’s remarks during his press briefings defending the administration’s response to the coronavirus and blasting media reports that question Trump’s actions—while making swipes at presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Critics have argued that amid an election year, Trump has been using the coronavirus briefings as a replacement for his rallies.
“The re-election is blending into what he does,” historian at Princeton University Julian E. Zelizer told ABC News, adding that the daily coronavirus press briefings are “clearly efforts, when he speaks, to boast of what he's doing and to set up his argument of a successful wartime president against the disease. But we're deep into the war right now. We're not even close to the end.”
On one recent event launching a “Catholics for Trump” coalition, the post briefing show's guests included Father Frank Pavone, a staunch Trump supporter and national director of Priests for Life, and veteran Republican strategist Mary Matalin. Both guests issued fiery defenses of the president’s coronavirus response.
“Thank God he’s the one leading this. He does unify the country, it’s amazing to see how he’s brought together the government agencies and the private sector,” Pavone said, while criticizing Democrats for "complaining" and "lying" about the response.
Matalin took her comments a step further, calling it “evil” to criticize the president’s response to the virus. “I consider it pure evil about what his critics are saying [President Trump] is doing in this crisis,” she said.
There’s also crossover between guests at the White House briefings and the campaign shows.
Days after Lindell announced in the Rose Garden plans to make medical masks amid the pandemic, the long-time Trump donor also appeared on “Trump Team Online.”
Lindell ripped media outlets over criticizing his briefing room appearance. “[Jim Acosta] said something like, this is a PR stunt to advertise MyPillow products,” Lindell said. “I think Jim, if you’re out there, I think people know who MyPillow is.”
At one point, Lindell said he tries to convince Democrats of what a “good” job the president’s done with his response to the coronavirus by saying: “Would you rather have the best doctor in the world, but you don’t particularly like him. Or would you rather have a doctor that you love but he doesn't know what he’s doing?"
"We have the best doctor ever right now working on this,” Lindell said, referring to President Trump.
The digital shows were first launched nearly three weeks ago on March 26th with a live broadcast featuring now White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Lara Trump.
After the inaugural event reached over 1 million views, the campaign doubled down on the effort and piloted a string of nightly shows that are cycled through each week including “Team Trump Online!,” “War Room Weekly,” and coalition centered shows like “Black Voices for Trump Real Talk Online,” and “Catholics for Trump Online.”
"The first one was we were going to do it and see what needs to be worked on," Murtaugh told ABC News. "But it was always Brad's [Parscale] intention to go seven days a week."
More recently, most of the events are pre-taped and feature multiple segments broken up by other campaign videos pushing supporters to text and join the team’s large supporter list, promoting the president’s coronavirus response, or a Biden attack ad.
Since making the shift online, Trump campaign staffers have outfitted their homes into make-shift production studios equipped with light kits, lavalier mics, and custom campaign backdrops.
“War Room Weekly” stands out as the most aggressive new digital show from the campaign. "It's our chance to define Joe Biden," said Murtaugh, who hosts the weekly half-hour show that centers around targeting the president's presumptive general election opponent.
Murtaugh says his work in local news at WVIR-TV, a Charlottesville, Virginia NBC affiliate, in the 90s helped with the transition into hosting and producing the weekly War Room show. "I used to do a live shot from the state capitol every evening for the evening news without teleprompter," he said, noting that he still doesn't use one for the campaign show. Each week, Murtaugh features a series of clips curated by the campaign's reasearch team to target Biden. "The sound bites themselves shape what we talked about. Because better to hear from the candidates themselves than than us," he said.
Initially, the digital shows were mostly scheduled to air at 7 p.m. eastern each night following the White House briefings. But as Trump’s briefings crept longer and longer, often bumping up against that start time, the campaign shifted events an hour later. Still, the president’s briefings regularly push the campaign to start their digital events late.
And while the Trump campaign haven't started digital events while the president is still speaking at press briefings, Vice President Mike Pence and the task force is not always afforded the same treatment, with the team starting an event last week after Pence took over the briefing after the president left the room.
Trump’s “staggering” digital advantage
Allies point to the Trump campaign’s online numbers as proof that the team, which has been investing millions building out its digital operation for years, has a crucial advantage as the 2020 election remains online.
"When you look at the enthusiasm that the Trump campaign is now generating online with their Trump broadcasts that are reaching, I believe, like a million people an episode, it's pretty staggering,” Jason Miller, senior communications adviser on the 2016 Trump campaign, told ABC News.
“And you look at Joe Biden, by contrast, who effectively has now been reduced to a blogger on Medium as well as a basement podcaster, and I say that affectionately as someone who also does some some basement podcasting, but Joe Biden seems to be running for a political commentator while the Trump campaign is driving a message even without having the president be really part of the mix there.”
Looking at the numbers, Biden’s campaign enters the now fully-digital general election at a disadvantage online. Trump has over 27 million likes on Facebook, Biden has 1.7 million. Trump’s YouTube page has over 26 millions views with 300 thousand subscribers, Biden’s has 7 million views with 41 thousand subscribers. On Twitter Trump has 77 million followers, Biden has just 5 million.
On Facebook alone, where the president holds a massive advantage, the Trump campaign’s last ten digital campaign events reached over 11 million views combined, while Biden came in under 5 million total, according to an analysis by ABC News of public records on Facebook. And the former vice president’s events featured the candidate, while the president himself has yet to appear on any of his campaign digital events.
Some replays of Trump campaign digital events nearly double the viewership for new Biden events on Facebook.
"We couldn't be prouder of the quality and effectiveness of our digital team, which was indispensable to the greatest comeback in American political history," a Biden campaign adviser said. "They pack a hell of a punch and we're looking forward to expanding for the general election while being smart about not overextending ourselves. We're excited about the new members of our team we'll be bringing on to build on our successes, and will make announcements about those developments in the future."
The Biden team says they had 52 million video views in the last month, and point a "massive boost" in digital fundraising, with 70% of the $46 million raised in March coming from online donations.
“I watch them every chance I get.”
Kimberly Love, a Trump supporter from Fort Lauderdale, FL., tells ABC News she makes sure to catch the president’s daily press briefings every night, and then turns to the campaign for a double feature. “I watch them every chance I get and sometimes I watch them a few extra times,” she said.
“I get hyped up and very excited every time,” Love said.
Love said she supporters the president’s coronavirus response because he tells it like it is and “really gives someone [in the press] the time of day if you know what I mean.” And it seems some of the president's comments at the briefings have made an impact on how Love is approaching the coronavirus, telling ABC News she "refuses to wear a mask."
"If he's not going to wear one I'm not going to wear one," she said.
At a briefing in early April, Trump announced a new government recommendation that Americans wear cloth face-coverings, while also empathizing that the guideline was a recommendation and not mandatory.
“With the masks, it’s going to be really a voluntary thing. You can do it, you don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it and that’s OK,” Trump said.
Other supporters say they catch clips of the president’s briefings and campaign events when they can, even while battling the impact of the pandemic on their lives.
A Trump supporter from Louisiana, Ivan Oviedo, who was furloughed from his factory job amid the coronavirus pandemic, said he makes sure to watch the president’s briefings and digital events as much as he can, recently catching an episode of the campaign’s “Latinos for Trump Online” show.
“I started applying for any place that was hiring. So now I’m delivering pizza for Domino’s and picking up odd jobs from people I know for extra cash,” Oviedo said. “If I can’t watch live I try and catch it on YouTube when I get home. Sometimes it’s pretty late when I get home and I just stay up to watch whole thing.”
Oviedo added that while he tries to watch everything, both the campaign shows and the briefings, he doesn’t have enough time “because of all the work I’m doing to try to make extra money and make up for as much lost salary as possible.”
Trump allies and the campaign say the online numbers, much like long lines at campaign rallies, point to strong enthusiasm from the president’s base of supporters.
“President Trump’s supporters will run through a brick wall to vote for him,” Parscale said in a statement. “Nobody is running through a brick wall for Joe Biden.”
In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Biden trailed significant behind the president in terms of strong enthusiasm among supporters, at just 24%, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll — the lowest on record for a Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years.
President Trump on the other hand, has 53% of his supporters very enthusiastic, according to the poll, 29 points ahead of Biden.
Some experts, however, downplay the president’s big digital numbers. “The differences between the number of people participating in Trump's vs. Biden's digital campaign events is not a predictor of what will happen in the fall so much as a reflection of Trump's careful nurturing of his base on digital platforms,” Morley Winograd, Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, said.
But other Democrats, especially those versed in the digital space, have been sounding the alarm regrading the president and his team’s advantage online.
At the close of a recent episode of “Pod Save America,” a pro-Democrat political podcast hosted by former Obama White House aides, co-host Tommy Vietor warned about Trump’s online operation being “so much bigger” than Bidens and urged listeners to “help” by following the former vice president across social networks and posting online about “why they like Joe Biden.”
“Don’t just post anti-Trump stuff,” Vietor said. “Talk about Democratic policies put forward by Joe Biden that make you want to support him and help your life.”