Trump's dangerous move to spin virus risk
Chris Hawke

Editor's note: Chris Hawke is a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a journalist who has reported for over two decades from Beijing, New York, the United Nations, Tokyo, Bangkok, Islamabad and Kabul for AP, UPI, and CBS. The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

After U.S. health officials warned this week that more cases of the coronavirus are inevitable and people and institutions at all levels should prepare, U.S. President Donald Trump held a media conference in which he repeatedly emphasized the risk to Americans is "very low," the spread of the virus is "not inevitable," and announced that close ally Vice President Mike Pence is in charge of the U.S. response.

Trump has a long record of replacing or sidelining officials who contradict him or say things he does not like.

For example, earlier this month he abruptly replaced acting intelligence chief Joseph Maguire following a classified briefing to the House Intelligence Committee in which members of Congress were told that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election, and has developed a preference for Trump.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contradicted statement by the President about the risk Hurricane Dorian posed to Alabama. Trump refuted his own weather department with a map sloppily doctored by a Sharpie. A trail of emails shows that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross pressured the head of the NOAA into supporting Trump's false statements. The agency's acting chief scientist filed a complaint alleging the actions violated the scientific integrity policy.

Trump has appeared to have done the same thing again. He took the lead role in the outbreak away from Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and gave it to Pence after alarming statements about the risk of the coronavirus to Americans earlier in the week by staffers under Azar's purview at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that helped rattle global stock markets.

"We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this could be bad," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."

Another official, Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: "Current global circumstances suggest it's likely this virus will cause a pandemic."

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a press conference in the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., February 26, 2020. /Xinhua

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a press conference in the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., February 26, 2020. /Xinhua

Trump tried to walk back the urgency of these remarks at his media conference on Wednesday, saying the coronavirus disease is "like the flu" but with far fewer deaths. He repeated many times that the risk to Americans remained low, pointing out that there were very few infected cases in the country, and their health was improving.

Trump asked several public health officials to speak at the media conference, who all praised the President's response to the crisis, and repeated his assessment of the risk — with caveats.

Schuchat told the media conference, "Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases we have so far. However, we do expect more cases."

Azar also agreed that the risk was currently low, but said, "At the same time, what every one of our leaders and experts have been saying for a month remains true, the degree of risk has the potential to change quickly. We can expect to see more cases in the United States." He said people need to "prepare for the possibility that we will need to mitigate broader spread of infection within the United States."

Much like a hostage on television trying to signal his distress by blinking out an SOS in Morse code with his eyelids, he directed the U.S. public to the CDC website, which clearly states: "The potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the United States."

Trump has long complained that his administration officials have been undermining his policies and public statements. This is undoubtedly true. A New York Times editorial by a "senior administration official" said, "Many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office."

Journalist Bob Woodward's book "Fear" reports former Defense Secretary James Mattis once ignored an order to launch airstrikes, and former economic adviser Gary Cohn succeeded in preserving a trade agreement by pilfering an order to terminate it from Trump's desk.

The Meuller report concluded, "The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."

Are we witnessing this happening again?

At about the same time as the news conference, the CDC released a statement statement announcing a new coronavirus case in California, which Trump had not mentioned.

"It's possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19, which would be the first time this has happened in the United States," the statement said. If true, this would mark a dangerous new phase in the spread of the virus in the U.S., and undermine Trump's efforts to undermine CDC warnings.

The Washington Post reported UC Davis Medical Center requested a test for the patient of February 19, and patient was tested on Sunday, three days before the media conference. Perhaps someone at the CDC timed the release to blunt Trump's efforts to downplay the agency's warning. Or perhaps it was inevitable that Trump's efforts to ignore his officials and spin their message was doomed to backfire.

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