United States President Donald Trump had plenty to talk about during his latest big campaign rally, regaling a friendly crowd in New Jersey with his thoughts about impeachment, the economy, the border wall, local politics and much more.
But the president was conspicuously quiet about one big issue that has much of the globe on pins and needles: the spread of a deadly new type of coronavirus.
A self-described germaphobe, Trump has had little to say in public about the new virus that so far has killed more than 170 people in China, sickened thousands more there and led to a handful of confirmed cases in the U.S.
And he speaks in broad terms when he does talk about it.
“We’re very much involved with them, right now, on the virus that’s going around,” Trump said of China before signing a trade deal at the White House on Wednesday. He said he had discussed the situation with Chinese President Xi Jinping and added, “We’re working very closely with China.”
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.
Later Wednesday, Trump tweeted out photos from a briefing on the virus he attended with administration officials in the Situation Room, 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 to the new virus. The 12-person team is chaired by Secretary of Health and Human Services 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.