President Donald Trump has treated the global coronavirus outbreak like most obstacles in his way — as a messaging opportunity.
Apparently worried about a downturn in the stock market ahead of his re-election bid in 10 months, the President on Monday broke a weeks-long Twitter silence on the matter and reassured… investors. The market has tumbled in light of the outbreak’s threat.
The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2020
That ran contrary to statements from the CDC’s immunization chief Nancy Messonier, who warned Tuesday that “disruption to everyday life may be severe.”
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said.
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said a few hours later in a press conference: “Current global circumstances suggest it’s likely that this virus will cause a pandemic.”
Trump has issued multiple reassurances in recent weeks that contrasted with the virus’ growing death toll and global footprint.
“It will all work out well,” he tweeted on Jan. 24, thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping and China for its “efforts and transparency.” In the subsequent days, he advertised the “very few cases reported” in the states, and later said the victims were “all in good recovery.” Then, on Monday: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”
Tuesday didn’t pass without a shot at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who alongside other Democrats has criticized the White House’s ask for a $2.5 billion coronavirus response package — which would include transferring $535 million currently marked for fighting the Ebola virus.
“Cryin’ Chuck Schumer is complaining,” Trump wrote.
Cryin’ Chuck Schumer is complaining, for publicity purposes only, that I should be asking for more money than $2.5 Billion to prepare for Coronavirus. If I asked for more he would say it is too much. He didn’t like my early travel closings. I was right. He is incompetent!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2020
In a press conference Tuesday during a multi-day trip to India, Trump downplayed concerns about the virus and compared it to Ebola, which has a higher mortality rate.
“There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die” of coronavirus, he said. “It’s very much the opposite. You’re talking about one or two percent, whereas in the other case it was a virtual hundred percent. Now they have it. They have studied it, they know very much, in fact, we’re very close to a vaccine.”
The comments were widely interpreted to mean that Trump had hinted at a coronavirus vaccine, though none is close to completion — Sen. Roy Blunt, after a closed-door briefing Tuesday, said it would be “12 or 18 months” before a vaccine is ready.
“The president was talking about the Ebola vaccine,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere told TPM. (The FDA approved an Ebola vaccine in December.)
Trump’s bracing optimism about the global outbreak appears to be a White House-wide messaging strategy.
“At this point, coronavirus is not something that is going to have ripple effects,” acting White House budget director Russ Vought said Feb. 10.
And the President’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, made a startlingly confident assessment of the situation on CNBC Tuesday.
“We have contained this. We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight,” he said.
He added later, after acknowledging the “human tragedy” of the outbreak, that “I don’t think it’ll be an economic tragedy at all.”