White House struggles to defend Trump echoing offensive rhetoric

Even Kellyanne Conway wasn't prepared to defend Trump's use of language she'd already denounced as "highly offensive" and "very hurtful."
Image: US-POLITICS-CONWAY
White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway speaks to the press on the driveway of the White House on Aug. 28, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

It was about three months ago when CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang said a White House official referred to the coronavirus as the "Kung Flu" to her face. As we discussed the other day, 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, it's become a far-right applause line that the president has publicly embraced -- twice. Politico reported:

The president first labeled coronavirus as "kung flu" in public last weekend at a rally in Tulsa, Okla. "I can name 'kung flu,' I can name 19 different versions of names," Trump said. "Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu, what difference?" Tuesday night at an event in Phoenix, Trump again said the term when prompted by the crowd, eliciting loud cheers.

Kellyanne Conway told reporters this morning, in reference to the president, "We don't always agree on everything."

In other words, even she wasn't prepared to defend Trump's use of language she'd already denounced as "highly offensive" and "very hurtful."

But one of the angles to this that stood out for me yesterday was the context: Trump didn't use the offensive line unprompted; he repeated it after being goaded by followers. "Kung Flu" has quickly become one of the hits far-right voters want to hear their performer play, and the Entertainer-in-Chief can't disappoint his fans.

It's an unsettling cycle: Trump is eager to air racial grievances, which generates excitement among elements of his base, which the president sees as validation, which leads him to air racial grievances.

As the general election unfolds over the next 19 weeks, don't be surprised if this gets quite a bit more toxic.

Postscript: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to defend Trump's rhetoric from her podium this week. It didn't go especially well.