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Trump under growing pressure on U.S. response to growing coronavirus threat

A man wears a mask in Chicago’s Chinatown on Jan. 30 following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)

President Trump, a leading critic of the Obama White House’s handling of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, is under increasing political pressure to mount a coordinated federal response to the threat of the new strain of coronavirus — amid fears of a global health crisis with economic ramifications in an election year.

The White House has sought to tamp down criticism from Democrats in recent days by projecting an air of confidence and competence, with Trump presiding late Wednesday over an interagency briefing in the Situation Room. He also announced a new task force of senior aides to lead the government’s response, including screenings at 20 U.S. airports, the repatriation of U.S. citizens from China and efforts to develop a potential vaccine to treat the novel virus.

The disease, dubbed a “public health emergency” by the World Health Organization, has left more than 200 dead and infected more than 9,000 people in China and Taiwan, along with about 100 confirmed cases outside that country, including six people in the United States.

“This is no cause for urgent panic in any way in the United States,” Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health, told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “This is currently under control. But really, this is a dynamic and rapidly changing event, and the news can change at any moment. But the resources are deployed, the government is mobilized and we feel confident — we know the right steps to take to contain it.”

Yet the vast uncertainty over the contagiousness and lethality of the coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and the complicated geopolitics given Beijing’s poor record of transparency in handling infectious diseases, have increased the stakes for the Trump administration. So has the president’s interest in an election year of restoring more normal trade relations with China after years of tariff battles.

Democrats, including 2020 presidential candidates Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), have warned that the president’s policies have made the United States more vulnerable to an infectious disease crisis.

They pointed to the dismantling of a global health security team in 2018 during a reorganization of the White House’s National Security Council. And in an op-ed published in USA Today on Monday, Biden called Trump the “worst possible leader” to oversee the government’s response, citing his call for then-President Barack Obama to implement a travel ban on West African countries during the Ebola crisis even though public health experts opposed such a move.

“I remember how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma. . . . He called President Barack Obama a ‘dope’ and ‘incompetent’ and railed against the evidence-based response our administration put in place,” Biden wrote.

Trump has been uncharacteristically muted on the coronavirus. On Wednesday, he tweeted out photos of his Situation Room briefing and professed that his administration is working closely with China. “We have the best experts anywhere in the world, and they are on top of it 24/7!” he wrote.

One senior administration official said Trump has been hesitant to speak out because some aides have cautioned that he could unnecessarily cause public alarm — and assured him that China is working hard to keep the virus under control. But increasingly, there is a feeling among aides that the president must say more, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Heath and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who is leading the new task force, provided Trump with a briefing on China’s response that prompted the president to issue a more positive tweet last week about Beijing’s performance than other officials, believed was warranted, the senior aide said.

This week, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney began holding daily meetings focused on the issue, officials said, and aides have begun discussing how they could safely evacuate people from China, along with where they could be placed in the United States.

Some administration officials and members of Congress have expressed concern over how transparent Beijing has been in accounting for the breadth of the virus and its failure so far to share full data with the United States and other countries.

Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers have pressed for a targeted travel ban from China, which Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Okla.), a close White House ally, said in a letter to the administration was “warranted to protect Americans until we know more about the virus and the outbreak is under control.”

Trump’s 2020 campaign countered Biden’s criticism by pointing to remarks he made in April 2009 during an outbreak of swine flu that he would counsel his own family not to ride the subway or airplanes, which a White House spokesman later said might have caused people to be “unduly alarmed.”

“This is another attempt by a failing candidate to gain credibility on an issue where he has almost none,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said of Biden.

Experts said the new coronavirus appears to be more contagious but far less deadly than Ebola, which is thought to have infected more than 28,000 people and killed more than 11,000 during the 2014 outbreak. But China already has confirmed more cases of coronavirus than of SARS, a more deadly coronavirus, during an outbreak that spread through Asia in 2002 and 2003.

As the midterm elections approached in fall 2014, Trump and numerous GOP leaders faulted Obama for his response to Ebola. Obama appointed Ron Klain, who has worked in multiple Democratic administrations in several roles, as the administration’s Ebola czar.

All told, four people in the United States were found to have contracted the disease, including a Liberian national who died while visiting Dallas. The other three recovered, and Obama declared a qualified victory in early 2015 during an event at the White House with public health professionals.

In an essay in the Atlantic on Thursday, Klain said Trump’s 2014 criticism amounted to a “virulent, xenophobic, fearmongering outburst.” He cited a study from the Obama White House’s Office of Digital Strategy that concluded Trump’s tweets were a driving factor in instilling a sense of unfounded fear over Ebola among the American public.

Trump “will have to trust the kind of government experts he has disdained to date, set aside his own terrible instincts, lead from the White House, and work closely with foreign leaders and global institutions — all things he has failed to do in his first 1,200 days in office,” wrote Klain, who is advising Biden’s campaign.

Some global health security experts said that a more senior White House official should be in charge of the Trump administration’s response given that Azar has little authority over other agencies. Critics pointed to the 2018 restructuring at the NSC that led to the departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, who had overseen a team dedicated to the U.S. response to a deadly pandemic, as weakening the senior-level attention.

“This is much bigger than HHS,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s a sluggishness built into the system by the way they have structured themselves.”

But Tim Morrison, who served on the NSC from 2018-2019, said Ziemer’s team was merged with another NSC department and experts remain on the White House staff. He cited the administration’s handling of an Ebola outbreak in the Congo in 2018 as evidence that the White House remains capable of coordinating an effective response to an international threat.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien and his deputy, Matthew Pottinger, a fluent Mandarin speaker, are also on the president’s task force. Vice President Pence has been involved in interagency meetings.

“I think the administration is actually running a very effective process,” said Morrison, now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “They don’t need an Ebola czar the way the Obama administration needed one. They’ve got the apparatus in place.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been in touch with Azar and other senior administration officials, and Democrats have mostly refrained from overt criticism of Trump, even as they pressed the administration to devote sufficient resources to managing the situation.

“A global pandemic is like a meteor coming out of the sky,” said a Democratic congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

The White House “recognizes the risk of the appearance of not being on top of the situation in case it does turn out this is worse or more problematic than it initially appears,” the aide added. “There’s very little political price you pay for overreacting because people will forget. There’s a huge potential vulnerability for underreacting.”