U.S. postpones Asian summit in Las Vegas amid coronavirus fears

Josh Lederman and Carol E. Lee and Hans Nichols

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has called off a major summit of Asian leaders next month in Las Vegas amid growing alarm over the coronavirus, two U.S. officials tell NBC News.

The United States had planned to host a special summit of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on March 14.

But planning for the trip was abruptly halted on Friday, just as President Donald Trump said he was considering expanding his travel ban to cover countries that had a disproportionately high number of coronavirus cases. “We’re looking at that,” Trump told reporters on Friday.

"As the international community works together to defeat the novel coronavirus, the United States, in consultation with ASEAN partners, has made the difficult decision to postpone the ASEAN leaders meeting previously scheduled for mid-March," a senior administration official told NBC News. "The United States values our relationships with the nations of this critical region, and looks forward to future meetings."

The White House had not announced whether Trump planned to personally attend the Las Vegas summit. But U.S. presidents often attend ASEAN’s annual summit, and it would be unusual to skip it during a year when the United States was hosting it.

Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, seemed to suggest Trump did plan to attend when he was asked last week about Trump’s interactions about trade with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Those guys will meet, and I’m sure you’ll be thrilled, but we’re all going to Las Vegas for the ASEAN,” Kudlow had said.

The White House, the National Security Council and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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The cancelation comes as mounting uncertainty over the coronavirus epidemic helped trigger a massive stock market selloff that led to Wall Street’s worst week since the 2008 financial crisis. The White House has sought with increasing urgency to quell concerns that the U.S. is unprepared for the potential spread of the virus in the United States.

The coronavirus, which originated in China, has spread to at least 40 countries, including the U.S., although cases in the United States have thus far been limited.

As recently as Thursday night, White House officials were telling people involved with the summit’s planning that it was still happening. “They were very confident that everything was in place,” one person who spoke with National Security Council officials said. “So this is a surprise.”

And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked Tuesday whether Coronavirus was affecting planning for the summit, suggested it will still on.

“The ASEAN summit is still — we’re working our way through it for the — I guess it’s the second weekend in March in Las Vegas,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.

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Another planned diplomatic meeting, this one a White House visit by Austria’s chancellor scheduled for March 3, was also postponed on Friday, according to an internal administration document reviewed by NBC News.

U.S involvement in ASEAN, which brings together nations Southeast Asian nations to confer on economics and security, has played a major role over the years in helping solidify U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region, as Washington seeks to counter the rise of China as the region’s major power.

Trump attended the 2017 ASEAN summit in Manila, Philippines, but didn’t attend the summit in 2018. The administration began planning to host a March summit in Las Vegas after another Asia regional summit, scheduled to take place in Chile in 2019, was canceled due to widespread protests in the country at that time.

Josh Lederman reported from Memphis, Tenn., Carol E. Lee reported from Washington.