Officials debate what to tell Trump about coronavirus outbreak

As the world confronts a coronavirus outbreak, Trump administration officials aren't sure "what information the president should receive."
Image: A man crosses an empty highway in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3, 2020. The coronavirus, which has now spread to several countries, originated in Wuhan.
A man crosses an empty highway in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3, 2020. The coronavirus, which has now spread to several countries, originated in Wuhan.Stringer / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

One of the first signs of trouble in the White House came a couple of weeks ago, when Donald Trump published a tweet praising Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The American president said of his counterpart in Beijing, "He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack."

The Republican's gushing praise made some administration officials uncomfortable, largely because they believe China's response has been wholly inadequate and dangerously opaque.

It was against this backdrop that the Washington Post had an interesting report over the weekend:

Although the United States has so far effectively contained the virus, some senior administration officials said there have been tensions within the administration over what information the president should receive, his posture toward China and what message to send to the American public.

All of this is obviously of great importance from a public-health perspective, but I was struck by the reporting that there's some behind-the-scenes disagreement between administration officials over what they want Trump to know about the emergency. I never worked in the Obama White House, but from what I gather, his team never quarreled over "what information the president should receive" when dealing with the Ebola threat in 2014, for example.

The Post's article went on to note that the president's perspective on the coronavirus outbreak has apparently been shaped in large part by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who has reportedly told physicians "not to get too far into the details of the virus and the outbreak with Trump."

Right. Because when a president is trying to respond to a public-health emergency, the important thing is for his staff to make sure he's not fully informed.

The problem, however, does not appear to be limited to Trump. During a committee hearing two weeks ago, Azar faced bipartisan pushback on the administration's response to the virus, especially when in the area of communicating with state and local officials.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), for example, described the administration's handling of the virus as "keystone cops," adding, "The coordination was not just minimal, it was zero. And if you're going to do a public health response, you have to work with state and local government, and they just didn't."

A week later, the White House released a budget blueprint that would cut "half of its annual funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the fight against the deadly coronavirus outbreak."