On virus, Trump uses phrase even the White House considers offensive

In March, a White House spokesperson called "Kung Flu" rhetoric "wrong" and "offensive." Three months later, Trump peddled the line at an ugly rally.
Image: President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.
President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters

It was about three months ago when CBS White House correspondent Weijia Jiang said a White House official referred to the coronavirus as the "Kung Flu" to her face. Team Trump took steps to distance itself from the ugly rhetoric quickly thereafter.

During a brief Q&A with reporters in March, Kellyanne Conway said of the "Kung Flu" comments, "Of course it's wrong." She added at the time that such language is "highly offensive" and "very hurtful."

Three months later, Donald Trump himself peddled the same phrase.

During Saturday's rally, Trump also referred to the coronavirus as "Kung flu," a racially insensitive reference parroted earlier this year by a White House staffer.

It was not the only rhetoric of note in Tulsa along these lines. The president went on to refer to Americans protesting in support of social justice as "thugs," before touting Confederate statues as part of "our heritage" and condemning "hombres" who engage in violent crimes. As a Washington Post report explained yesterday:

President Trump has long used his raucous rallies to road test potential campaign themes and attack lines. And while much attention on his Saturday night appearance in Tulsa focused on the sparse turnout for his first rally since the pandemic ended mass gatherings, Trump's litany of racially offensive stereotypes sent a clear signal about how he plans to try to revive his flagging reelection effort.

The rhetoric is ugly and offensive, to be sure, but it's this larger context that's also worth keeping an eye on as the 2020 election unfolds over the next 19 weeks.

This was Trump's first big event since racial-justice protests were held in communities nationwide, and the president had an opportunity to signal his commitment to combating institutional racism. The Republican instead did the opposite, using racial grievances as applause lines.

Given Trump's track record, this is likely to get worse, not better, as Election Day draws closer.