Trump Seeks United Coronavirus Front After Days of Mixed Signals
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is seeking to close ranks within his administration about the threat posed by the coronavirus and how the U.S. government plans to stop its spread, following mixed messages that rattled Wall Street and sparked an uproar in Washington.
Flanked by both politically appointed and career public health officials, Trump addressed the nation Wednesday evening from the White House briefing room for only the second time in his presidency. Together, they said that while a broader outbreak in the U.S. is possible, the risk to average Americans is low.
Investors anxious about the spread of the coronavirus from its origins in China have driven five consecutive days of losses in U.S. markets, erasing the benchmark S&P 500 index’s gains for the year. They have sought assurances that the Trump administration is prepared to confront a public health crisis that threatens the stability of the world’s largest economy as well as the president’s own political future.
“There’s a chance it could get worse. There’s a chance it could get fairly, substantially worse,” Trump said. “But nothing’s inevitable.”
He faced a difficult balance in the 56-minute news conference, seeking to persuade the public that the government is prepared for an outbreak without inducing further panic that the virus will sicken and kill scores of Americans. He named Vice President Mike Pence to lead the government’s preparations and said that only one of 15 patients identified in the U.S. so far remains hospitalized.
But underscoring the risks to the public and to Trump’s presidency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced shortly after the news conference concluded that it could not link one California patient to an existing foreign outbreak. That raises the possibility that the virus is already circulating within the country, what public health officials call “community spread.” Stocks in Asia and U.S. equity futures dropped after the announcement.
Trump was informed of the new case before the press conference and the CDC announcement, and was told that it was apparently not linked to other outbreaks, according to people familiar with the matter. But because he didn’t yet have the full details, he made only a passing reference at the press briefing.
The circumstances surrounding the case of that 15th patient weren’t discussed in a planning meeting in the Cabinet Room before the press briefing with top aides and officials, including Steve Biegun, Joe Grogan, Kellyanne Conway, Chris Liddell and others, the people said.
During the press conference, Trump dismissed conspiracies promulgated by allies including radio host Rush Limbaugh, who suggested earlier in the day that CDC officials had sought to hurt Trump politically by publicly warning that the virus is likely to spread in the U.S.
“They’ve been working really well,” Trump said. “They’re professional. I think they’re beyond that. They want this to go away. They want to do it with as little disruption.”
The global coronavirus outbreak poses a major challenge for Trump, whose political future may hinge in part on whether his administration can keep the illness contained. The coronavirus has the potential to cause an economic slowdown, which could undercut the president’s core argument to voters.
Markets dropped for the fifth consecutive day over virus-related fears. Wednesday’s fall came one day after a CDC official warned that a pandemic in the U.S. is virtually guaranteed, a message that contradicted the rosy picture Trump has painted about the virus.
The Trump administration has often struggled to put forward a unified message, fully staff its agencies, and give the public accurate information -- all critical tasks for a government seeking to prevent a pandemic.
Unlike past presidents, Trump hasn’t been a unifying figure in times of national crisis, and the spread of coronavirus has proven to be no different.
The president on Wednesday lashed out at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for criticizing the size of the White House’s $2.5 billion spending request to combat the virus. Schumer has offered an $8.5 billion plan of his own.
Trump also attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had called his request “anemic,” as “incompetent” and predicted she was not interested in protecting the country. Pelosi said in a statement on Wednesday night that the administration has “mounted an opaque and chaotic response to this outbreak,” adding that that the House “will be advancing a strong, strategic funding package.”
Trump used some humor during the press conference, referring to his reputation as a germaphobe while giving Americans routine hygiene tips.
“I had a man come up to me a week ago, I hadn’t seen him in a long time and I said ‘how you doing?’ He hugs me. I said ‘are you well?’ He says ‘No, I have the worse fever in the world.’ And he’s hugging me. I said excuse me,” Trump said, and then demonstrated how he washed his hands after the encounter.
Coronavirus became a flashpoint in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debates, providing the candidates a chance to lay into Trump’s response rather than attack one another. Senator Bernie Sanders mocked the president’s claim the virus would subside in two months -- an assertion not backed up by public health officials.
“In the White House today, we have a self-described great genius. Self-described. And this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months,” Sanders said. “April is the magical day that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined, I wish I was kidding, that is what he said.”
By Wednesday, the negative market reaction and growing public anxiety about the disease had finally appeared to rattle the president. He lashed out at the news media hours before the news conference, accusing outlets of “panicking markets.”
Roughly 55% of Americans believe there will be a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus in the U.S., according to a Kaiser Family Foundation health tracking poll released Tuesday but taken before the market downturn. The World Health Organization reporting on Tuesday that there are now more than 80,000 infections worldwide.
Almost 70% believe the U.S. government is “doing enough” to combat the virus, though there is a split along party lines. Eighty percent of Republicans believe the response has been sufficient compared to 60% of Democrats.
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