Hot Air

6 p.m. ET: Trump to hold press conference with CDC on coronavirus; Update: First U.S. case of unknown origin

In hindsight this might be one of the most important briefings of his presidency. Fingers crossed that it’s informative and astute in balancing reassurance with straight talk about the severity of the threat. Not, you know, this:

Mindful of how he prioritizes, even some of Trump’s allies were gently nudging him today to bear in mind that the message tonight should be “here’s how we’re going to contain this,” not “coronavirus alarmism is a plot to defeat me in November by tanking the stock market.”

His critics are also concerned, and are less tactful about it:

“President Trump has a history of hyping up panic, like he did by calling for a travel ban during the West African epidemic. Or he can give a sense of false assurance like saying China and the US have [coronavirus] totally under control,” Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University who has advised the World Health Organization on pandemic preparedness, told Insider…

“The focus here should not be the president,” [former Obama deputy Jeremy] Konyndyk said. “The focus here should not be anyone’s electoral prospects. The focus should be candor and transparency about the risks and about what people need to do to protect and prepare themselves.”…

“He is taking, perhaps unconsciously, an enormous political risk by trying to buy some short-term calm in the markets at the expense of accurate risk communication. That could hugely backfire on him,” Konyndyk said.

Hopefully, hopefully we’re not treated to a long digression about the Dow Jones and how the CDC is doing the bidding of Rod Rosenstein’s family by trying to elect Bernie Sanders or whatever, but after yesterday’s bizarre pollyanna-ism from Larry Kudlow all bets are off.

The president may announce that he’s appointing a new “coronavirus czar” to take charge instead of HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Funding will likely also be discussed: Trump’s new budget proposed cutting the CDC’s money this year and the initial “emergency” ask for new coronavirus funding was a measly $1.25 billion, both of which will have to be revised. “At this stage, I think we are substantially underinvesting in what would be appropriate for a setting which could be serious,” said Mitt Romney yesterday, adding, “I think we should be pulling out all the stops.” Indeed. This is a weird, weird moment for the Trump administration to discover its inner fiscal conservative.

There’s also a chance we’ll see him scold members of his team today. He was annoyed that the Americans sick with coronavirus on the Japanese cruise ship were allowed to fly home without him being notified first, and he’s reportedly concerned with the NIMBY problems arising from housing patients in states that don’t want them, like Alabama. And of course he’s grumpy that the CDC talked down the precious Dow average:

Privately, Trump has become furious about the stock market’s slide, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal details.

While he has spent the past two days traveling in India, Trump has watched the stock market’s fall closely and believes extreme warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spooked investors, the aides said…

“You don’t want to overly feed the darkness, but if you seem like all you do is happy talk then you lose credibility,” said Gene Sperling, who served as a top economic adviser during the Clinton and Obama administrations. “You get a three-hour high from your happy talk, but lose the long-term ability to be seen as serious, factual and potentially reassuring at a later point when it might be justified. This White House may already be in danger of losing the capacity to be seen as serious.”

The Dow was down again today, not substantially like over the last 48 hours but it was in the black this morning and sunk into losses at around 1:30. Sperling’s point is well-taken, and another reason why this briefing could be important: If Trump tries to talk up the market with rosy assessments of the threat and then there’s more bad news next week, his ability to talk it up going forward will be lost. It’s telling that he scheduled today’s briefing for the unusual hour of 6 p.m., in fact, instead of 11-ish or mid-afternoon, when most briefings are held. My guess is that he didn’t want to risk another market dive based on whatever’s said at this presser. Better to do it after the stock exchange has closed for the day and investors have an evening to digest it.

One more thing to watch for: There’s been chatter that the U.S. might try to use the UN to force China to be more transparent about the disease. Trump’s refrained from being confrontational with Xi Jinping thus far, believing that China’s more likely to hoard information if it’s challenged. But some of his advisors are frustrated that the charm offensive isn’t paying off in terms of data. What do we do to pressure Xi without alienating him?

Update: Not encouraging.

Inside the West Wing, there’s panic that Trump’s compulsive fictionalizing could trigger an even bigger crisis if the coronavirus truly explodes. “This is a black swan event,” a former West Wing official said. “The White House is concerned because they can’t control the virus and Trump wants everyone to get out there and say positive things, but people inside don’t have confidence the statements are accurate.” The official went on: “It’s one thing to get people out there saying, ‘we’re going to win the election’ or ‘the economy is great.’ It’s another to have the government say, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ but then people start dying.” While we spoke, the official told me that he was searching for face masks on Amazon, but the site was sold out. “I have to go,” he said, and hung up.

Update: This sounds like confirmation that it’s already spreading within the U.S. population.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been informed of the first case of the coronavirus in a person who did not recently return from a foreign country or have contact with a confirmed case, according to a person briefed on the case. Officials have begun tracing the contacts of the resident to find out how the person may have been infected and who else might have been exposed.

Update: Sounds like we have a coronavirus czar and it’s a guy whom Trump can trust absolutely not to share information with the public that might hurt him politically. A guy whose own electoral fortunes, in fact, depend on the country perceiving the containment effort as successful:

Leave a Reply