Coronavirus crisis? Trump’s bromance with Xi is going strong and he can blame everything on the Democrats anyway

(Originally published here on March 3, 2020 in South China Morning Post.)

US President Donald Trump is absolutely correct to push back at critics who faulted him for the travel restrictions that the immigration authorities put in place a month ago.

But to hear Trump tell the story, it was his political opponents from the Democratic Party that assailed the decision to restrict travel from China, even though the Chinese foreign ministry was much more critical.

Once again, Trump’s bromance with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, overrides any coherent foreign policy response and redirects recrimination back to his opponents in Washington.

Last week, Trump told the White House press corps that he had “a long talk” with Xi. News of the call sparked curiosity about what the leaders of the world’s two largest economies might have said or agreed on, but the only takeaway Trump offered was that Americans “can count on reports coming out of China” regarding the spread of Covid-19 there.

This was after Nancy Messonnier, director of the US Centres for Disease Control’s National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said in a press briefing a day earlier that it was just a matter of time before community transmissions of Covid-19 emerge in the US.

That infuriated Trump, who hastily arranged to have Vice-President Mike Pence take control of coronavirus messaging. According to The New York Times, Anthony Fauci, director of the US’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was told by the White House not to say anything else about the epidemic without clearance.

US President Donald Trump is absolutely correct to push back at critics who faulted him for the travel restrictions that the immigration authorities put in place a month ago.

But to hear Trump tell the story, it was his political opponents from the Democratic Party that assailed the decision to restrict travel from China, even though the Chinese foreign ministry was much more critical.

Once again, Trump’s bromance with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, overrides any coherent foreign policy response and redirects recrimination back to his opponents in Washington.

Last week, Trump told the White House press corps that he had “a long talk” with Xi. News of the call sparked curiosity about what the leaders of the world’s two largest economies might have said or agreed on, but the only takeaway Trump offered was that Americans “can count on reports coming out of China” regarding the spread of Covid-19 there.

US prepares for widening coronavirus outbreak as Covid-19 epidemic spreads

This was after Nancy Messonnier, director of the US Centres for Disease Control’s National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, said in a press briefing a day earlier that it was just a matter of time before community transmissions of Covid-19 emerge in the US.

That infuriated Trump, who hastily arranged to have Vice-President Mike Pence take control of coronavirus messaging. According to The New York Times, Anthony Fauci, director of the US’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was told by the White House not to say anything else about the epidemic without clearance.

Fauci explained in a press conference last Saturday that he “had to just stand down on a couple of shows and resubmit for clearance” after Pence became the coronavirus communications tsar.

Now, let’s consider the White House’s recent track record on veracity before we evaluate the need for this filter. Trump disagreed with Messonnier’s comments in last Wednesday’s briefing; hours later, the CDC announced the first evidence of “community spread” in California.

So, Messonnier would appear to be a better source of information about the coronavirus contagion than the US president.

One might also question the reliability of White House-directed messaging after hearing Trump say last Friday that Americans are panicking about the implications of the Covid-19 outbreak because “they’re not very happy with the Democrat candidates, when they see them. I think that has an impact”.

This assertion was stupefying in its detachment from reality. Anyone looking to fault China for its high-gear coronavirus propaganda campaign should check out Trump’s suggestion that last week’s market decline was more in response to what investors were hearing in the Democratic presidential debates.

It’s doubtful that even the Chinese propaganda department could stretch the truth that far.

But Trump’s phone call with Xi is confusing for other reasons. Just outside the warm glow of this bonding between good friends, the militaries of the two countries appear engaged in tit-for-tat provocations in the South China Sea.

Last week, China’s air force and navy raised their combat-readiness level after the Lunar New Year in response to increased freedom of navigation exercises by US forces in the East and South China seas.

This followed a US Navy report that a Chinese destroyer had pointed a laser at a US military patrol aircraft flying over the western Pacific, a move that the US military authorities described as “unsafe and unprofessional”.

Several other clashes have played out. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi lashed out at the US for its decision weeks ago to deny entry to foreigners, and to quarantine Americans, who had travelled in China.

Just a few weeks ago, Trump’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, called Beijing “the central threat of our times”, echoing similar sentiments from other officials in Washington, including Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray.

In various respects, and the phase one trade deal notwithstanding, relations between the US and China appear to be deteriorating more quickly than ever.

The analysis is no longer about how much worse the relationship can get; it’s more about how soon the low-level provocations in the South China Sea will send bullets flying.

The key factor in preventing such an outcome is the alliance Trump has formed with Xi against America’s foreign policy, intelligence and military leaders.

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