The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The three phases of Trump’s insistence on pointing out that the coronavirus originated in China

President Trump crossed out “Corona” in his notes and replaced it with “Chinese.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump has in recent days been pointed in linking the outbreak of the novel coronavirus across the United States to its point of origin, China. He has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus,” including in edits of his prepared remarks Thursday before the daily briefing on the pandemic, in which he replaced the word “corona” with the descriptor.

At the briefing Friday, he did the same.

“I’d like to begin,” Trump said, “by providing an update on what we are doing to minimize the impact of the Chinese virus on our nation.”

Over the past month, as the number of confirmed coronavirus infections has grown in the United States, Trump has gone through several phases in which he has focused on identifying China as the source of the virus.

Each phase has different characteristics — and obviously different goals.

Phase I: Late February

Trump’s first briefing on the virus was Feb. 26.

“China, you know about it, where it started,” he said. It was an offhand reference to the point of origin, a point of information but not necessarily politics.

Over the following days, though, as media coverage of the virus’s spread increased and new attention was paid to the government’s response, Trump began to use the virus’s point of origin as a way to deflect blame.

It began with this tweet.

“We got hit by this unexpected situation from China, and it’ll all work out. It’ll all work out fine,” he said in an interview the next day.

At a campaign rally in South Carolina the following night, he repeated that idea.

“A virus starts in China, bleeds its way into various countries all around the world. Doesn’t spread widely at all in the United States because of the early actions that myself and my administration took against a lot of other wishes,” Trump said. “And the Democrats’ single point — talking point and you say it’s — is that it’s Donald Trump’s fault, right?”

The point was obvious: This isn’t my fault. This was the same rally at which Trump called the response to the virus a “Democrat hoax.” At the time, with the number of cases still relatively low, Trump and his allies focused on undercutting political criticism of the government’s approach.

Phase II: Early March

Then the number of cases began to climb.

Over the next week, Trump repeatedly mentioned the virus’s point of origin, but primarily without linking it to politics. Speaking to reporters after touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 6, Trump mentioned the point of origin in neutral terms.

“They saw there was something going on in China long before anybody even heard of it,” Trump said then. “That was actually before it was even in the print. They heard there was a problem in China.”

During that event, he made several other mentions of China being the point of origin, seemingly as a way to demonstrate some command of the situation. At another point during the same event, Trump said that he thought he might have “a natural ability” in the field of medicine.

Phase III: Mid-March

There was a lull for a bit. Then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted a link to government information about the outbreak, calling it “the Chinese coronavirus.” That kicked off a firestorm of criticism — and defenses of McCarthy and his use of the term.

The tweet was March 9. The next day, Trump again noted that the virus originated in China for the first time in several days.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Asia Pacific American Caucus, said President Trump's covid-19 rhetoric is used to distract the public. (Video: The Washington Post)

By the time McCarthy tweeted, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already begun deliberately tying the virus to China in an effort to rebut that country’s embrace of misinformation about where the virus originated. This quickly became a point of focus among conservatives online: To them, it was important to point out that the virus started in China to offset that propaganda.

During his address to the nation on March 11, Trump referred to the virus as a “foreign virus” and noted that it originated in China. Fox News and Fox Business began more frequently tying the virus to its country of origin.

The partisan debate that emerged after McCarthy’s tweet became more energetic. Criticism of the use of terms like “Chinese virus” as racist fed into existing partisan fights about identity and political correctness. Defense of the term became part of his allies’ standard partisan messaging.

Trump used it for the first time on March 16.

Over the next few days, Trump used the term “Chinese virus” repeatedly. Asked about it during the briefing Wednesday, Trump didn’t suggest that his goal was combating Chinese propaganda.

A reporter asked why he used the term.

“Because it comes from China,” Trump said.

Asked whether the term was racist, Trump said it wasn’t.

“It’s not racist at all. No. Not at all. It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China,” Trump said. “I want to be accurate.”

Before the press briefing Thursday, he was given a printout of his prepared remarks. Trump crossed out “corona” and wrote in “Chinese.”

Just because he wants to be accurate.