Trump Shrugs Off Spike in Anti-Chinese Racism, Even in His White House

After one of his aides made a racist joke to a Chinese-American reporter, Donald Trump denied inciting a racist backlash by using the term "Chinese virus."

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump defended his racism at the White House on Tuesday. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

In case there was any doubt that President Donald Trump is inciting racism by blaming China for the global coronavirus pandemic, and referring to the pathogen as “the Chinese virus,” one of his own aides made a racist joke to a Chinese-American reporter at the White House on Tuesday.

“This morning a White House official referred to Coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to my face,” the CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang reported on Twitter. “Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back,” added Jiang, who was born in China but raised in West Virginia.

As more reports of hatred directed at Chinese-Americans circulated, Trump was asked on Wednesday morning about the racist jibe, and whether him labelling the virus Chinese fuels the racist backlash. The president refused to denounce his aide and denied any responsibility for Asian-Americans being targeted.

A day earlier, Trump had defended repeatedly calling the pathogen “the Chinese virus,” saying it was a justified response to the promotion of a conspiracy theory, by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, that the virus might have been introduced to China by an American soldier during the Military World Games in Wuhan, China, in October.

The World Health Organization’s executive director for emergencies, Dr. Mike Ryan, was asked to comment on Wednesday about Trump’s language and the backlash from his implicit effort to blame China. “We’ve been very clear right since the beginning of this event that viruses know no borders and they don’t care your ethnicity or the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. So, it’s really important that we be careful in the language we use, lest it lead to profiling of individuals associated with the virus. This is just something we need to all avoid,” Ryan said. “It’s easy to make comments that are not intended to do that but ultimately end up having that outcome,” he added.

“The pandemic influenza of 2009 originated in North America. We didn’t call it the North American flu,” Ryan observed. “This is a time for solidarity. This is a time for facts. This is a time to move forward together to fight this virus together,” he concluded. “There is no blame in this.”

As Associated Press journalist in Beijing confirmed that Trump’s words are alienating even otherwise pro-American people there.

Marian Wang, a senior news producer at “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, suggested that Trump’s racist taunting just “gives the Chinese government even more fuel for inflaming anti-American nationalism.”

As is so often the case, the president appears to have absorbed this nativist talking point from his favorite television channel, Fox News. Last week, Tucker Carlson opened his show with a monologue seething with resentment at the idea that it was racist for him to call the pathogen “the Chinese Coronavirus.”

The opportunity to both blame China for the crisis and mock liberals for being offended at the racist overtones has led Fox to fill the airwaves with such language.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the term “Wuhan virus” in a recent appearance on “Fox and Friends,” the morning show Trump consumes religiously.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the former presidential candidate, advised the White House and Fox News that a deadly infectious disease cannot be fought with bigotry.

Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, also condemned Trump for stoking racism.

Fox also offered a platform, last month, to Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who attacked Chinese officials struggling to contain the outbreak by floating the conspiracy theory that China might have created the virus as a biological weapon.

Last week, the spokesman for China’s foreign ministry responded by urging his Twitter followers to visit a fringe Canadian website which speculated the virus might have been created at an American biological weapons lab.

Amid the escalating tensions between China and the United States, China’s foreign ministry also withdrew the press credentials of American correspondents who report for The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

Updated: Wednesday, March 18, 3:00 p.m. ET
This article was updated with a new headline and to add comments on Wednesday from President Donald Trump and Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of emergencies for the World Health Organization.

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