What a difference five years and winning a presidential election makes.
In the summer and fall of 2014 — less than a year before he officially launched his presidential bid — Donald Trump posted about 100 mostly panicked tweets about the Ebola virus. Many of them attacked then-President Obama for his handling of the outbreak, and some of them went as far as to accuse the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of lying about what was going on.
America is now confronting the possibility — or even likelihood — of a coronavirus outbreak within its borders. The novel virus and Covid-19, the disease it causes, could quickly become President Trump’s problem, and it’s instructive to look back at what had to say about Ebola and Obama’s response to it.
Spoiler alert: None of it is reassuring.
Trump used Ebola to make a bunch of reckless attacks against Democrats in the lead up to the 2014 midterms, then promptly dropped the whole thing
Trump’s first tweet about Ebola came on July 31, 2014 — the day before a State Department flying ambulance brought two American health workers back to Emory University, home of the CDC, from Monrovia, where they had contracted the virus.
“Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!” Trump wrote.
Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2014
The next day, Trump demanded that the health workers not be brought back to the US — “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” he wrote — and followed that up by insisting that they “must suffer the consequences” for going to Africa in the first place.
The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2014
In the days that followed, Trump said the US government “must immediately stop all flights from EBOLA infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our ‘borders,’” and started attacking the CDC, whose leadership at the time was calling for calm and arguing that closing the borders in the manner Trump suggested would only make things harder to manage.
Same CDC which is bringing Ebola to US misplaced samples of anthrax earlier this year http://t.co/aX7ihXdcMz Be careful.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2014
In September and October, Trump turned his fire to President Obama, calling him “dumb,” saying his refusal to stop flights from Africa was “almost like saying F-you to U.S. public,” and claiming in an Instagram video that “he should be ashamed.”
Trump even accused the CDC of intentionally spreading misinformation.
Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa-and fast. Stop flights— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2014
In comments that previewed the nativism of his presidential campaign, Trump attacked a Liberian man named Thomas Eric Duncan who traveled to the US with Ebola but only became symptomatic once he arrived. Trump suggested Duncan had sinister motives and called him to be prosecuted just four days before he died in a hospital.
This Ebola patient Thomas Duncan, who fraudulently entered the U.S. by signing false papers, is causing havoc. If he lives, prosecute!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2014
Beyond attacking Obama for not banning flights from Africa, Trump also blasted him for appointing Ron Klain to coordinate the government’s response to Ebola.
”It’s the wrong person,” Trump said during an October 2014 appearance in Iowa to stump for Rep. Steve King (R-IA). “Do we need more people? Do we need more bureaucracy?”
In late October, Trump went as far as to call for Obama’s resignation after Craig Spencer, a doctor who had treated Ebola patients in Guinea, became symptomatic in New York City and was diagnosed with the disease. Spencer promptly isolated himself and made a full recovery — but Trump wouldn’t let that get in the way of his narrative.
If this doctor, who so recklessly flew into New York from West Africa,has Ebola,then Obama should apologize to the American people & resign!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2014
By the end of the month, Trump had explicitly turned Ebola into a campaign issue.
John Foust is a liberal who supports ObamaCare and opposes Ebola travel ban. Send Conservative @BarbaraComstock to Congress!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2014
Even though Trump was a private gadfly at the time, all of this had an impact. His unhinged tweets were covered both by right-wing and mainstream media, and Trump pushed the same talking points during Fox News appearances. As Dr. Steven Hatch detailed for Mother Jones back in 2017, Republicans running for office that year ended up taking cues from Trump’s talking points:
Trump’s social-media outbursts were among the earliest shots fired in the political war over Ebola. The timing of the Ebola outbreak could not have been more propitious for Republicans, many of whom echoed Trump’s calls for a temporary travel ban. In the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections, the specter of a lethal African virus being spread through the United States by migrants stoked fears not only among the GOP base, but also among many voters who leaned Democratic. By October, two-thirds of respondents to a Washington Post/ABC News poll said they favored restricting travel from Ebola-affected countries.
But after the midterms came and went on November 4 — elections in which Republicans gained nine Senate seats and 13 House seats — Trump lost interest in the issue. He only posted two tweets about Ebola after the midterms, with his last one coming on November 10.
A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2014
Trump’s hysteria about Ebola was overblown. The virus did not spread in the United States. There were only two deaths from the disease in the country, and both of them were people who contracted it in Africa. It’s hard to argue that the Obama administration’s response was anything but competent and effective. But, reality aside, fear-mongering about Ebola served as a useful political cudgel for Trump, who at the time was publicly mulling whether to run for president.
What Trump’s Ebola tweets tell us about his management of the coronavirus situation
Fast-forward several years, and the shoe is now on the other foot. Trump is the president overseeing the United States’ response to the coronavirus. It has infected 57 Americans as of Tuesday — the same day the CDC Nancy Messonnier’s issued a public warning that the virus’s impact on the country “may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe.”
As the coronavirus has spread this week in places like Iran and Italy and worries about a global pandemic became more acute, the Dow took a huge hit, falling nearly 2,000 points over Monday and Tuesday. The Washington Post reported that Trump is worried not in particular about a Covid-19 outbreak at home, but instead about the market slide, and “believes extreme warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spooked investors.”
So, in a reversal from 2014, Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday morning in an attempt to downplay worries about the disease in a tweet where he tried to pin blame for the stock market slide on the media.
“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” Trump wrote.
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. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape! @CDCgov.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2020
Unlike Obama, Trump has not yet elected to appoint a czar of sorts to oversee the coronavirus response, though the idea is reportedly under “consideration.” The lack of coordination has likely contributed to the mixed messaging that came from government officials on Tuesday, when top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow claimed on CNBC that “we have contained this ... pretty close to airtight,” even as the CDC was warning Americans that a spread of coronavirus in the country is now an inevitability.
Even Republicans who are normally staunch defenders of Trump seem to be getting fed up with what seems to be a lackadaisical government response. During a hearing on Tuesday, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) grilled acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf as he provided vague and at times misinformed statements about a possible Covid-19 outbreak, admonishing him, “The American people deserve some straight answers.”
"You're the secretary. I think you oughta know that answer" -- Even @SenJohnKennedy (R) is fed up with Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf's ignorance about coronavirus pic.twitter.com/yx1anMAAFV— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 25, 2020
As my colleague Matthew Yglesias detailed, Trump has taken a number of steps to dismantle America’s pandemic response capabilities, including recent proposed cuts:
— Congress mercifully didn’t agree to any such cuts, but as recently as February 11 — in the midst of the outbreak — Trump proposed huge cuts to both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.
— Perhaps because his budget officials were in the middle of proposing cuts to disease response, it’s only over this past weekend that they pivoted and started getting ready to ask for the additional money that coping with Covid-19 is clearly going to cost. But experts say they’re still lowballing it.
— In early 2018, my colleague Julia Belluz argued that Trump was “setting up the US to botch a pandemic response” by, for example, forcing US government agencies to retreat from 39 of the 49 low-income countries they were working in on tasks like training disease detectives and building emergency operations centers.
— Instead of taking such warnings to heart, later that year, “the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure,” according to Laurie Garrett, a journalist and former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
For Trump, containing coronavirus panic is just about his reelection
Trump, facing a tough reelection campaign, certainly has a vested interest in doing everything possible to quell panic and keep the stock market strong. The question is whether he’s willing to pursue his private interests even to the detriment of his public responsibilities.
Fortunately, though the federal government can provide guidance, a lot of the responsibility of protecting American citizens from a pandemic actually falls to state and local governments. But what the president says matters.
While it’s too early to pass judgment on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, his Ebola tweets that nothing will take a back seat to owning the libs — especially when his political future is on the line.
Hat tip to HuffPost senior politics editor Sam Stein for inspiring this post with this Twitter thread.