WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump regaled a friendly New Jersey campaign crowd with his thoughts about with his thoughts about impeachment, the economy, the border wall, local politics and much more.
But he was conspicuously quiet Tuesday about one big issue keeping much of the globe on pins and needles: the spread of a deadly new type of coronavirus. It has killed more than 170 people in China, sickened thousands more there and led to a handful of confirmed cases in the U.S., including the first U.S. case of person-to-person transmission reported Thursday by health officials. The State Department on Thursday advised all U.S. citizens against traveling to China.
Trump, a self-described germaphobe, generally has discussed the virus in broad terms, but he offered some of his most extensive comments on the issue to date during an appearance Thursday at a Michigan manufacturing plant.
“Hopefully, it won't be as bad as some people think it could be, but we're working very closely with them (Chinese) and with a lot of other people and a lot of other countries," he said. “We think we have it very well under control.”
Trump described the handful of U.S. cases as a “very little problem” and said those people were “recuperating successfully.”
“But we're working very closely with China and other countries and we think it's going to have a very good ending for us. That I can assure you,” he said.
Trump also has discussed the situation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Aides and confidants say Trump's careful approach is part of a political strategy crafted to avoid upsetting the stock market or angering China by calling too much attention to the virus or blaming Beijing for not managing the situation better, according to a White House official and a Republican close to the White House. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Late Wednesday, Trump tweeted photos from a White House Situation Room briefing on the virus, writing that “we have the best experts anywhere in the world and they are on top of it 24/7!”
In keeping with the low-profile approach, the White House announced by email Wednesday night that the meeting included members of a task force that will lead the U.S. response. The 12-person team is chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and coordinated through the National Security Council.
The president's comments contrast sharply with the fierce criticism he lobbed at his predecessor, President Barack Obama, during the 2014-15 Ebola crisis, which left more than 11,000 dead in three West African nations.
At the time, Trump ripped into Obama as a “dope” and “incompetent" and called for a travel ban on visitors from Ebola-infected countries. Trump also advocated preventing infected American health care workers from coming home for treatment.
Obama faced some criticism from public health officials for being slow to address the Ebola crisis initially, but also received plaudits for eventually attacking it with vigor. He nudged Congress to make a $5.4 billion emergency appropriation to aid the fight and sent 3,000 U.S. troops to West Africa to help with the international response.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said he’s taken a measure of comfort in the fact that Trump, so far, hasn't overreacted and has resisted “fanning the flames” as he did with his rhetoric during the Ebola crisis. That leaves room, Gostin said, for public health professionals to take the lead.
"As long as that continues and as long as there isn’t political interference or mass quarantines in the U.S. or outright travel bans, I will feel comfortable with how the White House is handling it,” Gostin said. He added that he'd like to see Trump ask Congress for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to help agencies battling to contain the virus.
Trump is well aware the virus outbreak in China could create a wild card for the U.S. economy during an election year. And he has long prioritized the U.S. economic relationship with China, especially during trade negotiations, and similarly largely held his tongue during widespread protests in Hong Kong. He also takes enormous pride in the personal relationship he's developed with Xi and has commended him for demonstrating “transparency" as he deals with the crisis.
Asked about the virus while traveling abroad last week, Trump said “we have it totally under control.” In a separate Twitter posting, he offered reassurance but scant detail for his confidence.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus," Trump tweeted. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well."
But some public health experts say Trump's rosy assessments of the situation don't match the ground truth.
Gostin pointed to Chinese government bureaucratic delays that led to tens of thousands of people traveling outside of Wuhan province, increasing the likelihood that the virus will travel far beyond China.
“It’s not accurate at all,” Gostin said of Trump’s assessment of China’s handling of the outbreak. “China manifestly does not have this under control."
Trump's budgets have proposed cuts to public health, only to be overruled by Congress, where there's strong bipartisan support for agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, the money government disease detectives are tapping to fight the latest outbreak was a congressional idea.
Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Lauran Neergaard and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.