Trump started by deflecting — “they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world” — before pivoting suddenly: “They’re losing their lives everywhere in the world, and maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, okay?”
Jiang, an American journalist of Chinese descent, seemed taken aback and asked, “Why are you saying that to me, specifically?” He replied that he would give the same answer to “anybody that asks a nasty question.” Seconds later, he abruptly ended the news conference and walked off.
In a moment when Asian Americans have reported being subjected to verbal and physical abuse amid coronavirus fears, and when the president himself has leaned into his anti-China rhetoric, Trump’s slap at Jiang drew widespread attention.
Roy Gutterman, director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech, called Monday’s outburst “another attack on the press, likely calculated to demean the press, divert attention and change the day’s narrative,” but added: “There was probably some dog-whistling in his tirade, too.”
Jiang declined to comment about the incident. But on Tuesday morning, CBS News President Susan Zirinsky opened up the network’s daily editorial meeting with a pledge of support for her correspondent.
“Regarding what happened last night at the White House with Weijia, we have to be able to ask the tough questions,” she said, according to a person who attended the meeting. “Weijia’s question was totally legitimate. We support Weijia and our White House correspondents to ask tough important questions.” Zirinsky noted that while its reporters don’t want to become part of the story, sometimes it is unavoidable.
The president has had several tense interactions with Jiang, notably in April, when she asked why he did not recommend social distancing until mid-March, and he deflected by touting his earlier efforts to restrict travelers from China. When she interrupted, he responded with a sarcastic show of calming her. “Nice and easy,” he said. “Nice and easy. Just relax.” That same month, when she asked him to clarify what Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, meant by saying the federal stockpile of medical equipment was “our” stockpile, a lengthy back-and-forth ensued.
“It’s such a basic, simple question, and you try and make it sound so bad,” Trump told her.
“It’s not bad,” she responded. “I’m just trying to —”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Trump said, cutting her off, and later scolded: “You just asked your question in a very nasty tone.”
In March, Jiang tweeted that a White House official had called the virus “Kung-Flu” to her face. “Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back,” she wrote. In response, Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host wrote, “I don’t care that you are offended by ‘Kung Flu,’ ‘Wuhan virus,’ or ‘Chinese virus,’ ” and told her that he was sorry that she was “sensitive and eager to embrace Chinese communist propaganda.”
Weijia Jiang was born in Xiamen, China, and immigrated with her parents to the U.S. when she was 2 years old. She was raised in West Virginia and graduated from Virginia’s College of William & Mary in 2005. She joined CBS News in 2015 and has covered some of the biggest stories of this administration, including the 2018 midterm elections, the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh and the Robert S. Mueller III probe. She started covering Trump during the 2016 campaign and later traveled with him for his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his near-daily White House updates on the coronavirus crisis, Trump has had a habit of turning the focus to the reporters who ask him questions. “I am the president and you are fake news,” he told The Post’s Phil Rucker on April 23. “I know the guy, I see what he writes. He’s a total faker.” In March, he told NBC’s Peter Alexander “that’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.” CNN has been a particularly target of his ire. “Always a nasty question from CNN,” he told Jeremy Diamond.
But by calling out Jiang, the president has also built on a pattern of suggesting that reporters might have certain loyalties based on their identity.
“He seemed to imply that she somehow ought to talk to the Chinese government as opposed to her own government, which is what she was trying to do,” said CNN’s White House correspondent, Abby Phillip, said on-air Tuesday morning. “The president making assumptions about reporters based on their ethnicity is a pattern here.”
At his first news conference as president, when April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Network asked Trump a question about the Congressional Black Caucus, he responded, “Do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?”
In the fall of 2018, he insulted African American women reporters — Ryan, CNN’s Phillip, and PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor — in the same week, calling one of Phillip’s questions “stupid,” describing Ryan as “a loser” and accusing Alcindor of asking a “racist” question.
In mid-March, just as Americans were coming to grasp the severity of the pandemic, Alcindor asked Trump about his responsibility for a controversial restructuring of the White House’s global pandemic team. “I think it’s a nasty question,” he told her. He went on to say he didn’t “know anything about it” and implied her departure from the New York Times to PBS was because she was fired.
The board of the Asian American Journalists Association said in a statement Wednesday that it stood by its member, Jiang, “and her fellow press corps members in their fearless pursuit of answers, as they have consistently demonstrated in White House coronavirus briefings.”
Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, says it’s a pattern of behavior not unlike “what female journalists and journalists of color experience online every day,” but in this case, “it’s happening in plain view and happening with the leader of our nation.”
On the morning of the exchange with Jiang, a coalition of press-freedom organizations ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post calling for “the full protection of Asian and Asian American journalists from racially motivated attacks.” The IWMF, one of those groups, is conducting a study to see if harassment has increased during the pandemic.
By Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted, “Asian Americans are VERY angry at what China has done to our Country, and the World. Chinese Americans are the most angry of all. I don’t blame them!”
This story has been updated.