WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump stood before thousands of cheering supporters in Iowa in January, days ahead of that state’s presidential caucuses, and uttered a word he had never before spoken out loud at one of his rallies: coronavirus.
“Hopefully, everything is going to be great,” the president said, noting China had “somewhat of a problem” before repeating the refrain: “It’s all going to be great.”
Less than six weeks later, with more than 3,000 people dead in China and the virus spreading within the United States, Trump took a lectern at the White House and said the epidemic had “blindsided the world,” that the challenge was “not our country’s fault” and that a “very dramatic” stimulus was needed to stanch plummeting markets.
Trump’s brief remarks this week were the latest step in a progression of messaging on the virus that has shifted from what some described as overly optimistic to a tacit recognition of the hurdles the virus poses for his presidency. There was no talk of the virus being “contained,” as some senior officials asserted days earlier, and the president acknowledged “no matter where you go” the virus is “on people’s minds.”
Trump was even more subdued Tuesday as he met with health care executives and traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby for a plan to help the cruise and airline industries.
“This was unexpected,” Trump said on Capitol Hill. “Everyone has to be vigilant and be careful.”
The tonal shift comes not only as markets have reeled from uncertainty caused by the virus but also as the White House has been put on defense over the president’s remarks. Many of Trump’s public statements have contradicted public health officials as he has sought to reassure nervous Americans who have been dumping stocks and clearing shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
Trump drew considerable fire last month for suggesting at a rally that the virus would take care of itself as spring approached. White House aides later said that Trump had heard that tidbit on a call with President Xi Jinping of China as their cases spiraled.
“It looks like by April,” he told supporters on the eve of the presidential primary in New Hampshire. “You know in theory when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away; hope that’s true but we are doing great in our country.”
Speaking to a gathering of African American leaders in late February at the White House Trump claimed the virus was going “to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle.”
Health officials such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said it’s “not unreasonable” to think higher temperatures could help but he and others have cautioned against the idea that the coronavirus will disappear. Trump hasn’t made the claim again for more than a week.
It’s just one of the examples of talking points the president has had to jettison.
Public health experts acknowledge presidents have a tricky job projecting a sense of calm while offering an honest assessment. That balance may be at odds with the communication style of a president who relishes fiery rhetoric and sparring with his political opponents. The question is whether some of the president’s early missteps will make it harder for him going forward.
Since the outbreak first emerged, Trump has repeatedly misstated the amount of time required to develop a vaccine, publicly suggested the flu vaccine might help combat coronavirus, and downplayed the risks of infection. Public health officials dispute most of those statements and have placed heavy caveats on others.
Joshua Sharfstein, the former secretary for Maryland’s health department and a former principal deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration under President Barack Obama, said that if the public loses confidence in the government’s message it can have deadly consequences. Medical experts need to play a prominent role in shaping the White House’s message, he said, so that the government can update the public without losing credibility.
“It’s really important that the communicators are credible, so when those changes happen, people believe them,” said Sharfstein, who is now vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins University. “The risk of inconsistent messages is that people stop believing what they’re hearing, and that means they may do things that put themselves and others at risk.”
The president’s misstatements come on top of other problems: A major glitch with an initial coronavirus test made by the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a testing regime that was stepped up less rapidly than in other countries and discord inside the White House and fears of publicly contradicting the president.
“They’re trying to manage the stock market. They’re not trying to manage the virus,” claimed Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. “That’s very dangerous.”
Frustration inside White House
Concern over the president’s response hasn’t been limited to Democrats or outside experts. Some of it has come from within an administration that even the president often acknowledges is not entirely on the same page. Trump has openly railed against aides he views as disloyal and was in the middle of a staff purge when the virus hit.
There have been frustrations within the administration over the response to the virus, two administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal friction told USA TODAY. That tension has largely focused on the president’s tone and rhetorical style rather than any specific steps that have been taken – or not taken.
The president has sometimes felt that public health officials have been overly alarmist in their pronouncements, including when a federal health official warned Americans last month to prepare for “severe” disruptions in the USA, those officials said. But as markets cratered, public events such as the South By Southwest festival were cancelled and the virus spread, it has become increasingly clear that those predictions were accurate.
Officials inside or close to the White House said Trump is reacting to events – and changing his message because he has no choice. He has no control over the virus as it threatens the U.S., supporters noted, and must exude confidence that the nation will get through it. When Trump spoke early on about containment, for instance, he was expressing optimism that it would be contained, the officials said.
Trump has been a more frequent presence in the White House briefing room, appearing before reporters three times in recent days. Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the administration’s response, has taken questions on the virus almost daily.
And, Trump aides noted, the impact in the United States remains relatively low compared to other nations. There have been nearly 800 cases in the USA and 27 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins, compared with nearly 1,300 cases in Germany, 1,600 in France and 373 in the United Kingdom. Those numbers pale in comparison with roughly 7,500 reported in South Korea and more than 80,000 in China.
Trump initially dismissed the idea of a stimulus, telling reporters last week the Federal Reserve “should do that because other countries are doing it.” But days later, the president was vowing to help industries hardest hit as well as hourly workers who face the prospect of showing up to work sick or potentially losing their jobs.
Aides said Trump changed his mind as consumers and business people have signaled increasing alarm and as stock prices have plummeted.
“The president and his team have been transparent with the American people while also doing all they can to prevent panic,” said Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump who is now helping his 2020 campaign.
He said the president “has been decisive and direct in combating the coronavirus, from taking early action in restricting travel from China to pressing drug companies and government agencies to move faster than ever to identify solutions.”
China travel restrictions
White House aides said they believe Trump has not been given enough credit for early actions – particularly on flight restrictions from China – that kept coronavirus numbers relatively low in the United States. It is a decision that both Trump and Pence have touted virtually every time they speak about the virus.
“I closed the borders to China. And that’s why we have a very small number of people that we have to really worry about,” Trump told Fox News last week.
Peter Brookes, a national security expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the restrictions were “the right thing to do” and helped slow the virus in the U.S.
“They’re doing very well in a very difficult situation,” Brookes said. He said Trump’s response has been “really robust” so far, despite numerous challenges – including China’s initial suppression of the virus’ emergence in Hubei Province.
But Jeremy Konyndyk, a global outbreak preparedness expert with the Center for Global Development, said Trump has made the crisis mostly about himself and that limiting travel from China masked the administration’s lack of preparation for the inevitable.
“The president preemptively declares that whatever he is doing is a success,” Konyndyk said in a Q&A with Vox last week. “That makes it extraordinarily difficult for the people working on the response to then do anything but fall in line with that view.”
Trump was outraged when Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in late February that community spread was inevitable within the United States, according to two administration officials who spoke to USA TODAY about the White House response.
Conservative media outlets, led by talk show host Rush Limbaugh, pounced on Messonnier, questioned her motives for delivering the assessment. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the media was overplaying the outbreak to “bring down the president” and advised people to turn off their TVs.
Days after Messonnier’s prediction, CDC officials confirmed cases of coronavirus in patients who had not traveled to countries where the virus was established.
“The message that the White House is sending is that they don’t want anybody who tells the president or the public something that the president doesn’t want to hear,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who worked at the State Department under Obama.
That creates a dilemma for the government’s public health officials who normally would “feel expected and empowered to share factual information with the public,” Malinowski said. “This becomes an urgent problem in a public health emergency.”