The novel coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it causes, have become a global health issue. But increasingly for President Donald Trump, a member of his family, and his administration officials, the virus is being seen as a weapon the president’s enemies hope to use against him as much as it is a public health concern.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, offered the most pointed encapsulation of this view on Friday when he told Fox News that Democrats “seemingly hope that it comes here, and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning.”
No elected official, Democratic or otherwise, have said any such thing. Some Democrats — and some Republicans — have, however, been critical of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby and Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have both called on the administration to spend more to combat the virus, for example.
Despite this, on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence — who is in charge of the White House’s efforts to deal with the outbreak — defended the president’s son’s remarks as “understandable.”
“This is no time for politics. And frankly, I think that was Don Jr.’s point: that there has been some very strong rhetoric directed at the president by some members of Congress,” Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “But responding to the kind of things that have been hurled is understandable.”
Pence’s defense of the president’s son is just one of several examples of how he and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar argued on the Sunday morning that Democrats and liberal commentators — not the Trump administration or the right — were to blame for the politicization of the coronavirus.
When NBC’s Chuck Todd questioned Pence on Meet the Press over politicizing rhetoric on the right, such as right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh’s claim that Democrats have “weaponized” the coronavirus as well as Trump Jr.’s inflammatory remarks, Pence declined to condemn them. Instead he drew attention to liberals.
Pence said Trump Jr. was “pushing back” at Trump critics, and that “it’s time for the other side to turn down the volume.”
Pence cited Gail Collins’s New York Times column titled “Let’s call it Trumpvirus” as an example of how “there have been irresponsible voices” on the left criticizing the president. Beyond pressure from Democrats for the administration to speed and better fund its response efforts, it is not clear what “volume” Pence was referring to.
Trump himself has claimed that criticism of his handling of coronavirus in the US is part of a Democratic Party “hoax.”
“One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it,’” the president said at a rally in South Carolina Friday. “They tried the impeachment hoax. And this is their new hoax.”
Here’s Trump at his rally tonight in South Carolina dismissing worries about the coronavirus as the “new hoax” pic.twitter.com/Q58d7dI1cb— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 29, 2020
At a Saturday press conference, the president made it clear he used the word hoax in connection to the coronavirus — which has killed at least 2,990 people globally and infected at least 22 people in the US — because he felt his administration’s work was being attacked.
When questioned over the use of the term hoax on Saturday, Trump said that it referred to “the action that [Democrats] take to try to pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job.”
He added, “I don’t like it when they are criticizing [government officials], and that’s the hoax.”
When ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos asked Azar about Trump’s use of the term hoax on Sunday, Azar deflected.
“He’s talking about the partisan sniping that we’re seeing, it’s unnecessary, we don’t need to have this made a political issue,” Azar said. “We’re in a public health crisis here, we need to all be banding together.”
The partisan sniping seems to be one-sided — but the coronavirus does inarguably call for banding together. There is still much that isn’t known about it, and new cases within the US are being reported daily. It is true that the US has far fewer Covid-19 cases than other countries, but that does not make the president and his allies’ use of the virus to attack political rivals any less worrying — or any less of a distraction from life-or-death work that needs to be done.