President Donald Trump has lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the growing coronavirus outbreak – a posture some in his administration are growing increasingly uncomfortable with as his advisers remain concerned about China’s lack of transparency and handling of the epidemic.
Worries about rattled financial markets and their effect on the economy as well as the delicate negotiations with China over a trade deal – a key to Trump’s re-election – have played a large role in influencing Trump’s friendly posture toward China over the deadly coronavirus, according to several senior White House and administration officials. Trump has heralded Xi’s leadership and “discipline” in responding to the outbreak.
“I had a long talk with President Xi – for the people in this room – two nights ago, and he feels very confident. He feels very confident. And he feels that, again, as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus,” Trump told the nation’s governors last week. “So that would be a good thing. But we’re in great shape in our country.”
But U.S. and international health experts have for weeks expressed concerns that China has not been fully transparent about the breadth of the outbreak and that it cracked down on doctors who tried to sound the alarm in December. Officials still do not have the information they have repeatedly asked for from China, which some officials have argued warrants a tougher line from the United States.
Trump has repeatedly told advisers pushing for a harder line against China could backfire because Xi controls the government “totally” and will not work with the United States if they say anything negative about the country, said one of these senior administration officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
So far, the United States has only 15 confirmed cases, though officials have warned they expect to see more. On Sunday, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post that 44 Americans who were traveling on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan have been infected.
Trump has remained uncharacteristically restrained in his public comments about the epidemic, which has infected more than 69,000 people, the vast majority of whom are in China. Trump’s praise toward Xi has irked some advisers, who believe the compliments are unwarranted as the U.S. is still working to get a team of experts access to data and Chinese sites to study the virus, aid in the response and secure all the needed information.
The U.S. has been working closely with the World Health Organization and engaged in other diplomatic efforts to get its experts into China. Several U.S. experts are now in Beijing, three senior administration officials said, but officials are still working to ensure those experts get access to the data and sites they need. And the CDC still does not have the information it wants, administration officials said.
Although the United States has so far effectively contained the virus, some senior administration officials said there have been tensions within the administration over what information the president should receive, his posture toward China and what message to send to the American public. And several officials said there has been too much focus on evacuating Americans overseas – and too little on what to do if the epidemic spreads within the United States, given the continued growth of the virus.
Trump named a coronavirus task force last month that is led by Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar and composed of top officials from the CDC, National Institutes of Health, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the White House. It came after a Jan. 27 meeting in Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s office, where some officials argued that the administration was not taking the threat seriously enough.
For weeks, the administration’s message was that the threat to the American public remained low and the virus was not spreading within communities – but warned that could change. Some advisers recently pushed for a more balanced message because they now expect there to be wider spread in the community as more cases have been reported in countries outside China, according to three officials, and the administration has since adjusted its message to reflect that.
When it became clear late last month that the epidemic was far more serious and widespread than previously known, several major international and U.S. air carriers suspended flights to China for weeks. China has also halted work at several factories across the country as it works to contain the virus, impacting some international companies’ ability to conduct business, including Hyundai.
The United States subsequently escalated its response, barring most non-U. S. citizens who recently visited China from visiting the United States and mandating federal quarantines for any Americans who had visited China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, within the last 14 days.
The market fell as the outbreak grew. On Jan. 31, the same day several airlines suspended flights and the U.S. announced its escalated response, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 600 points, or 2 percent. Trump grew concerned that any stronger action by his administration would hurt the economy, and has told advisers he does not want the administration to do or say anything that would further spook the markets.
He remains worried that any large-scale outbreak could hurt his re-election bid. Four senior administration officials, including Fauci, a member of the task force, insisted that U.S. actions have been driven entirely by public health considerations and a desire to contain the outbreak.
“President Trump’s top priority is the health and welfare of the American people,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “The president has received regular updates, including from experts within the federal government on infectious diseases.”
He added: “Secretary Azar is leading this whole-of-government approach in close coordination with the National Security Council, and is working around the clock to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.”
HHS officials have told Trump that the number of infections could go down in the spring when it gets warmer because most coronaviruses and upper respiratory infections – including the flu – level off as the weather warms.
The coronavirus spreading through China and in about two dozen other countries, however, has never been seen before and little is known about how it behaves or whether it will eventually mutate. The idea that it will taper off in the spring is “mainly an educated guess,” according to one senior White House official. In Singapore, for instance, it is above 80 degrees and humid but there are still more than 50 cases of the virus. CDC officials are now warning the president and others in the administration that cases could grow, administration officials said.
“In fairness to the president, someone told him something that has a basis in reality. … There is some validity in saying respiratory viruses like flu and coronavirus are seasonal,” Fauci said. “The only thing is when you’re dealing with a pandemic-type virus that is brand new, there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen when the weather gets warm.”
Some of Trump’s own advisers have contradicted his friendly posture toward China in public. Larry Kudlow, the National Economic Council director, said this week the U.S. was “disappointed” in China’s response and called on Beijing to be more transparent. Other officials, including Joseph Grogan, the head of the domestic policy council, has told others that China cannot be trusted at all. Peter Navarro, one of the president’s top trade advisers, has repeatedly pushed for a stronger tone.
Trump’s public statements about the virus and China’s handling of it are a stark contrast to his response as a private citizen during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, in which he panned the Obama administration’s response and called for the United States to shut its borders and not allow doctors who had been treating patients in Africa to come back to the United States for treatment.
Some officials have complained that Trump’s comments about the virus emanate from his briefings with Azar, who they say has been overly controlling in the response and has told other doctors not to get too far into the details of the virus and the outbreak with Trump. Azar is disliked by many in the White House, four administration officials say.
Fauci, however, said Azar has brought medical professionals with him to nearly every briefing and insisted they be part of Oval Office meetings.
Azar “always defers to the scientists. That’s the reason why whenever we’re in the Situation room and the president would like some briefing, Alex always takes me and (CDC director) Bob Redfield in with him,” Fauci said. “He always wants us to give the straight scientific information to the president.”
Azar has also wanted to be the one to announce major updates about the administration’s response to the virus, several officials said. On Thursday, he briefed the Senate Finance Committee that the CDC would use public health labs in five cities that normally test for influenza to also test for coronavirus, taking state health officials by surprise. One senior administration official said it was part of an effort to execute “radical transparency” with Congress and the public, noting that officials are doing their best to communicate clearly and effectively in a fast-moving situation.
It was not the first time state officials have been caught off guard by the administration’s actions. After the administration announced late last month it would quarantine travelers who had been in the hard-hit Hubei province within the last 14 days, federal and state officials were struggling with how to carry out the travel restrictions and where to quarantine passengers because they said the order came with no advance notice and little planning.
Two administration officials said the Trump administration was also struggling with the logistics, including last-minute planning for when planes landed with patients and potential patients. “Doing the best we can,” one official involved in the response said.
Some officials said the response has become smoother and better coordinated in recent weeks, with daily task-force calls.
“Our public health system’s the best in the world, and it’s working,” Azar said Friday. “That system is what identified the 15 cases that we have.”