As coronavirus spreads, Biden says Trump is 'the worst possible person' to keep America safe

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 6 days until the Iowa caucuses and 280 days until the 2020 election.

As China struggles to contain the deadly coronavirus, Democratic presidential hopefuls are offering up plans to deal with the likelihood it will spread to the United States — and criticism of the president they hope to unseat.

“Trump’s demonstrated failures of judgment and his repeated rejection of science make him the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge,” former Vice President Joe Biden wrote Monday in a USA Today op-ed

In turn, Donald Trump has had almost nothing to say about the outbreak, in contrast to his hysterical tweets about Ebola in 2014.

Joe Biden and President Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Matt Rourke/AP, AP, Image Source via Getty Images)

But is this an issue that voters will care about in November, or even next week?

It depends how you define this “issue.” When it comes to the political implications of the coronavirus, there are really two conversations taking place at once. The first is about policy. The second is about Trump’s leadership. A debate over public health policy probably won’t influence voters. But if the coronavirus starts to threaten Americans, a debate over the president’s capacity to keep the country safe could end up moving the needle.   

To rewind: The coronavirus is a pneumonia-like disease believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The outbreak is spreading rapidly across that nation, and cases are cropping up with increasing frequency overseas. China said on Tuesday that 106 people had died from the virus, up nearly 60 percent overnight, while the number of confirmed cases rose overnight from 2,835 to 4,515. Thailand has reported 14 cases of the infection; Hong Kong has eight; the United States, Taiwan, Australia and Macau have five each, and cases have been reported in Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, France, Canada, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia and Germany. There have been no deaths yet outside China.

An additional 110 people are being tested in the U.S. for possible infection.

Airline crew members in protective suits and masks spraying during the disinfection process. (Photo: Patipat Janthong/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In response, the federal government has urged travelers to avoid any nonessential travel to China and started screening travelers arriving from Wuhan at 20 domestic ports of entry. The U.S. also chartered a plane Tuesday to evacuate diplomats from its consulate in Wuhan, an important manufacturing hub with a population of 11 million.

President Trump has himself remained relatively quiet. “We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus,” he tweeted Monday. “Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch. We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!”

Earlier, Trump tweeted that “it will all work out well.”

Trump’s potential Democratic rivals, however, are not so sure. Last week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized Trump for seeking to cut funding meant to combat pandemics, and on Tuesday she released her plan to “ensure our public health agencies, hospitals, and health care providers are ready to jump into action when outbreaks strike” while also helping to “build strong public health systems abroad.”

Elizabeth Warren. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

A day earlier, Biden promised in his op-ed to “ask Congress to beef up the Public Health Emergency Fund and give me the power to use the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to declare a disaster if an infectious disease threat merits it” while also renewing “funding — set to expire in May — for the nationwide network of hospitals that can isolate and treat people with infectious diseases and fully funding the Global Health Security Agenda so the world is ready for the next outbreak.”

Both Democrats criticized what Biden called Trump’s “short-sighted policies” — namely, his proposed cuts to agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his decision to eliminate the position of a White House health security czar and withdrawal of funding for international epidemic prevention.

These are all valid policy concerns. Yet the part of Warren and Biden’s pushback that has the most potential to influence the 2020 contest isn’t about policy. It’s about leadership.

“The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president,” Biden wrote.  

As evidence, Biden cited Trump’s response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

Although largely forgotten today, Trump, who was already contemplating a presidential run, posted 100 tweets about Ebola in the summer and fall of 2014 — roughly one a day. His approach was consistent: to stoke fear about the disease spreading from Africa and attack President Barack Obama for his response.

Trump shouted about shutting down flights, even though public health authorities believe that blocking travel does nothing to stop the spread of disease, and can, in some cases, make things worse: "A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!"

A home is quarantined in an effort to combat the spread of the Ebola virus, Port Loko, Sierra Leone, in 2014. (Photo: Michael Duff/AP).

He sought to undermine the credibility of medical authorities: “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa — and fast.”

He advocated abandoning exposed and infected American citizens rather than bringing them home for treatment: "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!"

He claimed vindication for his well-documented germaphobia: "Something very important, and indeed society changing, may come out of the Ebola epidemic that will be a very good thing: NO SHAKING HANDS!

And he attacked Obama as “nuts,” “dumb” and “a stubborn dope” for implementing an evidence-based response that harnessed global cooperation, extinguished the epidemic and likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

So far, experts have voiced concerns about Trump’s fear mongering impulses and dearth of seasoned advisers, but with the president distracted by impeachment, they have also expressed confidence in how federal agencies are handling the coronavirus.

It isn’t hard, however, to imagine circumstances changing. The more threatening Ebola began to look to Americans in the fall of 2014, the more it became a political football. Confusion reigned. Conservatives attacked. Behind the scenes, Obama seethed. Yet his administration put its faith in science and eventually prevailed.

President Barack Obama speaks about Ebola at the White House in 2014 as Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell looks on. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In the midst of a domestic coronavirus outbreak, Trump’s incentives and instincts would point in the opposite direction: toward travel bans (which his administration is already considering); toward alarmism; toward conspiracy theories; toward China scapegoating; toward anti-foreign sentiment. There’s little reason to think Trump’s reaction now would differ from his reaction in 2014.

“We are likely to see trade bans, quarantines and other overreactions that are very harmful,” Lawrence Gostin, a senior professor at Georgetown University and an expert in global health law who has advised several administrations, told Stat News Tuesday. “With the Ebola epidemic, [Trump] was urging quarantines, travel bans, overreacting in all the ways that would be counterproductive. I would hate to see that now.”

Trump has yet to face a serious national security threat. Yet his least-popular moments have come when he has fumbled the response to an unforeseen disaster (like Hurricane Maria) or created a crisis out of thin air (like the recent escalation with Iran). These are times when Trump’s unconventional leadership style threatens to endanger American lives.

Look past the underlying policy debate, and what Biden and Warren are claiming is that the coronavirus could come to represent another such moment. If they’re right — or if some other alarming threat arises between now and November — it could very well affect Trump’s fate at the polls.

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