This was in line with Trump’s claim to Fox News’s Sean Hannity that “we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” As he departed for India on Sunday, Trump proclaimed that China’s president “will solve the problem” and offered assurances: “We have it very much under control in this country.”
Wall Street begged to differ. The Dow Jones industrial average lost more than 1,000 points Monday, or 3.5 percent, the worst rout in two years and part of an international sell-off. That erased gains for this year, just five days after Trump, in the latest of hundreds of such boasts, announced the “Highest Stock Market In History, By Far!”
Goldman Sachs, citing the dangerous virus, cut its growth forecast for the U.S. economy to 1.2 percent for the first quarter, well below the 2.3 percent rate in 2019. J.P. Morgan noted that a number of large U.S. companies have cautioned about impacts from the virus. And this is nothing compared with what would happen if the virus gets a solid foothold here; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reported the number of U.S. cases had reached 53, up by 18.
Even if Trump hasn’t acknowledged the gravity of the epidemic, The Post reports that his aides are considering asking Congress for an emergency spending package of as much as $1 billion. That’s a start, but Asha George, director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, tells me that “a billion is not going to do it,” particularly because agencies need to replenish some $200 million they have already taken from other programs to fight coronavirus.
George says a spending package of $3 billion is needed immediately to fund public and private research on vaccines and antidotes, stockpiling medical supplies, manufacturing medicines to overcome shortages caused by China’s supply disruption, getting accurate diagnostic kits to hospitals and doctors, and more planning and guidance for worst-case scenarios. George also thinks there needs to be an ongoing disease-response fund so there isn’t another scramble when the next Zika, MERS, SARS, H1N1 or covid-19 inevitably arrives.
This is a felicitous case in which doing the right thing is also in Trump’s short-term political interest. If his administration can expand surveillance (beyond haphazard screening at a few airports) and react quickly and effectively when clusters of the disease pop up, then disruptions to the economy will be minimal. But if his administration fails at surveillance and control, the United States could be in for China-style closings of schools and businesses, travel disruption, hundreds of thousands of people catching the virus and thousands dying from it. That would mean a big hit to the economy as Trump approaches reelection.
“If the government does its job,” George says, “we should never get to a Wuhan scenario.” If doing the right thing isn’t Trump’s first instinct, he now has what for him is the most powerful incentive: His reelection.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC over the weekend that “based upon everything we see now this will be manageable.” That’s true — if the administration actually manages the illness rather than treating Americans with happy talk.
Trump has continued to declare that “it’s going to work out fine” and to congratulate himself for his sensible move to halt travel from China. “Sixty-one percent of the voters approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus,” he told one audience this month.
Even as markets began their tumble Monday, Trump told a vast crowd in India that “we have the greatest economy ever in the history of the United States.” He later tweeted “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA." Now that coronavirus clearly threatens the U.S. economy — and Trump’s reelection — hopefully he will push for a more robust attempt to fight it.
The administration is already taking additional steps — to protect Trump. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was scheduled to accompany Trump to India, but at the last minute he was told to stay home, CNN reported, because he had a cold and “White House doctors advised against having him travel in such proximity to the president.”
How thoughtful of the White House to spare Trump his aide’s sniffles! Now how about protecting all of us from something worse?
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