Trump is headed for a political reckoning as his response to the coronavirus paints a grim picture of his ability to handle a potential pandemic

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a news conference in New Delhi, India, February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago

  • While officials struggle to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus in the US and the resulting global economic downturn, all eyes are on President Donald Trump.
  • Trump's response to the potential pandemic is a political reckoning for him and the biggest test of his presidency. So far, the results are not encouraging to health experts.
  • Trump has implemented massive cuts to national public health programs, and he routinely lies and misrepresents empirical findings that he views as unfavorable. He also has a demonstrated tendency to spread disinformation in times of crisis.
  • And his decision to purge his administration of those he views as disloyal, as well as his allies' constant efforts to spread conspiracy theories, suggests his administration is not focused on coronavirus or best positioned to respond to it.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As US public health officials sound the alarm about the potential for a coronavirus epidemic, President Donald Trump is insisting that there's nothing to worry about, putting him at odds with countries around the world and his own medical experts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week that the public needs to brace itself as the COVID-19 virus, known as the coronavirus, sweeps the globe and is increasingly likely to spread within the United States - a possibility that would likely force changes to the daily life of many Americans.

"It's not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country anymore but a question of when this will happen," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a press call on Tuesday. "We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad."

Messonnier also said the agency was "preparing as if we are going to see community spread in the near term," adding that the outbreak could soon lead to a "disruption to everyday life."

But Trump brushed off the warnings as he spoke to reporters on Tuesday during a business roundtable in New Delhi, India, where he took a two-day trip earlier this week. The president said China, where the virus originated late last year has "had a rough patch, but now it looks like they are getting it more and more under control. I think that is a problem that is going to go away."

As of Tuesday, China has 77,780 confirmed cases (518 new) of the virus and 2,666 deaths (71 new), according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with the outbreak now in 41 countries.

If the coronavirus breaks out in the US and forces the quarantining of American towns and cities, Trump's refusal to acknowledge its seriousness, on top of years of cuts to public health, could prove a massive political liability. Health experts told Insider that public trust and cooperation between local, state and federal officials is essential to treating those infected with the virus and limiting its spread.

In China, the unprecedented spread of the coronavirus is a massive test of President Xi Jinping's authoritarian system and the surveillance state he's built up over the years. It's also straining the global economy and affected the profits for multinational giants like Apple as schools, factories, and businesses across China remain shuttered and millions of people are quarantined and unable to work.

Xi Jinping

Places like Italy and Iran, where hundreds of cases of the disease have been diagnosed, are also in a similar lockdown mode as government officials struggle to contain the spread of the virus and the resulting economic downturn in European and Asian markets. In one Italian town, churches and bars are closed while military police stand guard to bar people from going in or out.

Now, the spotlight is on the US as it faces its own potential reckoning with the deadly virus.

So far, the results aren't encouraging.

The Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar, told Congress Wednesday that officials discovered a new coronavirus case in the US just since Wednesday morning, bringing the total number of confirmed cases up to 15. 445 people have been screened for the virus so far, and officials in Nassau County, Long Island announced in the afternoon that they are monitoring 83 people who may have been exposed.

"We need collaboration and cooperation from everybody at every level of the government," said Dr. Muhiuddin Haider, a clinical professor in global health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health's Institute for Applied Environmental Health. But by purging his administration and injecting partisan objectives into the civil service, Trump is "not building the coalition he needs between stakeholders."

As stocks continue to plunge and fears of an epidemic continue are rising, all eyes are on Trump as he faces the biggest test of his presidency and mounting questions about the US's readiness to respond.

Trump's massive cuts to public health funding are a 'national security risk'

Italy coronavirus lock down Florence

"We're behind the curve, possibly well behind the curve" when it comes to being prepared, Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Insider. Right now, he said, the US is "no better prepared" than China to handle a potential outbreak of the virus.

Konyndyk served as the director of the USAID office of foreign disaster assistance during the Obama administration and led the US response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

"A bad flu season is typically enough to strain US healthcare services to their limit," Konyndyk said. "A couple of years ago there was an unusually bad flu season, and some hospital systems in this country were resorting to treating people in hallways, on gurneys, and in temporary tent facilities."

"This is a disease that has the potential to be much worse than that," Konyndyk added.

The three main programs tasked with combating infectious diseases - the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services - are well informed and are working with other agencies at local levels, another expert said.

"We now need specific data from these organizations to ensure they are well equipped to locate who's been infected, supply commodities, and obtain resources to respond appropriately," said Haider, the clinical professor in global health at the University of Maryland.

Trump's massive cuts to national public health programs also stoked concerns.

In 2018, for instance, the CDC cut 80% of its efforts to prevent global disease outbreaks because it was running out of money. Ultimately, the department went from working in 49 countries to just 10.

Here are some other actions the Trump administration undertook to dismantle government-spending programs related to fighting the spread of global diseases, according to Foreign Policy:

  • Shutting down the entire global-health-security unit of the National Security Council.
  • Eliminating the US government's $30 million Complex Crises Fund.
  • Reducing national health spending by $15 billion.
  • Consistently attacking Mark Green, the director of the US Agency for International Development.

The Trump administration recently requested $2.5 billion in emergency funds - $1.25 billion in new funding and $1.25 billion to be diverted from other federal programs - to aid in preparing and responding to coronavirus cases in the US.

But Democratic lawmakers and health experts skewered the administration for not going far enough to combat the crisis.

To put it into perspective, during the spread of the Ebola virus, there was no risk of a large-scale domestic transmittion of the disease, but Congress still requested $5.4 billion. In this case, Konyndyk said, the coronavirus is a disease "that has the potential to kill dramatically more Americans, and spread dramatically further than Ebola ever could have."

The economic consequences of an unaddressed outbreak would dwarf US spending on efforts to control it, Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist and the director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider's Gina Heeb.

"It seems quite inadequate and absurd to divert funds from one serious epidemic to another," Lipsitch said of the emergency-funding package. "Money to control it is a very important investment."

The CDC is working on a new test to screen for the coronavirus, but according to New York magazine, problems with the test's development resulted in only three out of 100 public-health labs being equipped to screen for the virus. Moreover, each test costs as much as $250, and the Health and Human Services Department is already running out of money to finance an adequate response to the outbreak.

Haider described the coronavirus as a "national security risk" and said the Trump administration and Congress need to allocate funding accordingly.

"The prevalence rate in the US is still very low," he said. "But the question we need to look at is, what is the trend of this infection? How much is it growing? How often does the number of cases increase?

"The CDC said the disease's spread in the US is inevitable, but at the same time, there's no information on what the parameters of the infections could be," Haider added. "That's the danger of infectious diseases. So one can assume that under this situation, the trend is very real and can quickly turn into an epidemic."

"This is going to continue to spread around the world like a pandemic, not like SARS or MERS, and you can't stop it with traditional public health measures," Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Hill. "The only thing that would stop it is if you have a vaccine for the world. And we don't and we won't."

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump's 'harmful' tendency to spread disinformation in times of crisis could result in a 'whiplash effect'

It's not unusual for Republican presidents, who typically stress fiscal austerity and deficit reduction, to implement cuts to federal programs.

Trump, however, is unique not just because of the drastic nature of his cuts but because of his unwillingness to accept the findings of career, nonpartisan public health officials.

"There's a big disconnect between public perception and the actual reality of the risk," Konyndyk said. "The public has been hearing for a month that the risk to the US is low and that the focus is on containment. The headline is, we're keeping it out of this country."

"You see this reinforced by some of the president's messaging yesterday, which seemed more focused on calming the stock market than it did on transparent, accurate risk-messaging," he added, referring to comments Trump made on Tuesday. "What that sets up, then, is a sort of whiplash effect in public perception, if and when cases begin spreading at scale."

The result, Konyndyk said, is that the public will view the government's messaging over the last month as wrong, lose trust in the process, and move into panic mode.

Indeed, Trump's own record on delivering the facts, particularly in times of crisis, is spotty at best and harmful at worst.

Last year, the president wrongly asserted that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian, sending US weather agencies into a frenzy as they put out statements rebuking the claim and urging Alabamians to calm down. Trump refused, however, to retract his comment and went as far as to doctor a map of the US with black Sharpie to make it appear as though Alabama was in Dorian's path.

In April, Trump falsely insisted that Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in federal funding to aid in its efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. In fact, $41 billion had been approved at the time, and only a fraction was actually distributed out.

The president also claimed Puerto Rico has received "more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before" - it hasn't - and blamed its slow recovery on local officials.

Even now, as fears of a pandemic continue to mount, Trump is laying the blame at the feet of Democratic lawmakers and mainstream media outlets.

"Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible," he tweeted, misspelling coronavirus and using a pun for MSNBC. "Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!"

Public health officials, however, stressed this is a time that necessitates unity as the public listens to officials and may in some cases be asked to self-quarantine or keep their children home to minimize their exposure.

"Politicians will use arguments against each other, especially now, in an election cycle, but the issue is that we have an epidemic in front of us," Haider said. "We don't have any other choice other than for the president and all politicians to reach across party lines, put resources together, and enable strategic communications to face this crisis."

"President Trump has a history of hyping up panic, like he did by calling for a travel ban during the West African epidemic," Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law & Human Rights, told Insider's John Haltiwanger. "Or he can give a sense of false assurance like saying China and the US have [coronavirus] totally under control."

Overall, he added, Trump's "reputation for telling untruths and exaggerating truths is very harmful when he has to advise a frightened public during a major outbreak."

Trump's decision to purge the government has weakened the US's ability to fight a global pandemic

U.S.President Donald Trump points to a question during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

And then there's the president's recent push to purge his administration of those he perceives as being disloyal or not conservative enough.

He undertook the effort after emerging unscathed from a Senate impeachment trial in early February. In the days after, the president ousted two key witnesses who testified against him, as well as the twin brother of one of the witnesses, who was not involved in the investigation.

Last week, Axios reported that John McEntee, who heads up the presidential personnel office, called in White House liaisons from various federal agencies and asked them to root out political appointees across the government who are believed to be anti-Trump.

Meanwhile, Trump's allies in the media are working overtime to spread conspiracies and push the president's agenda.

On Wednesday, the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that Messonnier, the CDC official who warned of an increased risk to the US public, is part of the so-called "deep state" because she is related to former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

"It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump," Limbaugh said on his radio program. "Now, I have to tell you the truth about coronavirus. ... Yeah, I'm dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks."

Trump awarded Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at this year's State of the Union.

Replacing political figures with those who exhibit more overt loyalty to the president is one thing, but replacing nonpartisan, career officials - like those who work in public health, national security, and foreign policy - in favor of politically motivated officials is "dangerous," Haider said.

"We need collaboration and cooperation from everybody at every level of the government," Haider said. But by purging his administration and injecting partisan objectives into the civil service, Trump is "not building the coalition he needs between stakeholders."

"The US has a long history of civil servants who work very well under different administrations regardless of their personal beliefs," he added. "By burning those bridges, the president is weakening our infrastructure, our foundation, and our manpower" to combat a global health crisis like the coronavirus.

John Haltiwanger contributed reporting.

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