Here’s one of the great journalistic questions in our age: If a politician does something scandalous in plain sight, even on purpose, is there still a scandal?
President Donald Trump has raised that question in my mind many times. The latest came in an over-the-shoulder photo that Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford caught of the president’s speech text during his daily coronavirus news briefing Thursday.
Blown-up, the photo shows the word “corona,” a medical term for a family of viruses, crossed out and the word “Chinese” put in its place with a black marker.
If every picture tells a story, this one added a new twist to the developing dust-up over the president’s use of the term “Chinese virus,” a usage that has been roundly condemned as racially inflammatory by Asian Americans, among many of the rest of us.
There goes our rule-breaking president again. Most of us might have gone the other way, replacing divisive words with something more diplomatic. Trump puts them in.
In fact, using the phrase “Chinese virus” for the coronavirus is reported to have become a point of pride for some members of Team Trump. Trump came up with the label “Chinese virus” to describe the novel coronavirus because it was first detected in Wuhan, China, late last year.
Some White House staff are reported to have used the even more blatantly offensive label “Kung flu.”
There’s more than mere offense involved here, with Asian American and other civil rights leaders citing an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. It is one of the most tragic aspects of human nature that group hate always lurks beneath society’s thin surface of civility.
I don’t blame Trump for the hate, but I do condemn his callous indifference to the fear that his words stir up in a major segment of our society.
Moments like this give a sinister tone to the deep sighs of “That’s just Trump being Trump.”
But it’s not hard after years of watching Trump to see through this tactic. As a lot of his fellow conservatives would say, he’s just “triggering the libs,” deliberately provoking outrage among his political critics to distract from more substantive issues that he might rather not have to handle.
I’m talking about issues like the widespread shortage — or nonexistence — of testing facilities for the presence of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness. While thousands of South Koreans, for example, have been tested, giving officials a workable idea of how the virus has spread and what progress is being made to fight it, most Americans are left in the dark.
But Trump, who seemed to be out of his comfort zone, to say the least, with the virus crisis until he had an adversary or scapegoat onto whom he could shift blame, received a big gift from Chinese leaders who have tried to shift blame on Americans.
Some Chinese officials criticized American officials for politicizing the pandemic. Other Chinese officials and news outlets floated unfounded theories that blamed the United States.
Some of their conspiracy theorists, apparently out of embarrassment after allowing the virus to spread unchecked for weeks of valuable time, have been pushing the notion that COVID-19 is really an American disease brought to
Wuhan by visiting members of the U.S. Army. So much for that long-standing partnership.
This plays right into Trump’s hands — but so, alas, do media pundits like me who can’t find enough space to handle all of the outrages that he pushes our way. As if to taunt us, he threw in some more freewheeling assaults at “fake news,” and the coverage of his administration’s handling of the crisis.
Never mind the rare moment on March 16 when he praised reporters for helping to keep the public informed of the nature of the crisis. Reporters were doing so, I might add, during weeks of his attempts to play down the danger from COVID-19.
In a time of crisis, the public looks to the White House for leadership, an easier word to say than to display. We saw President George W. Bush rise to the occasion after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with speeches that helped unify and reassure the nation with a sense of shared purpose. President Trump is still learning.
He still has a problem with mixed messages. After weeks of playing down the threat posed by the virus, for example, he suddenly whipped around, insisting that, “I’ve felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic. All you had to do was look at other countries.”
Right. Meanwhile, there were those occasions when Trump either downplayed the threat of the virus, overstated the government’s capacity to reduce the crisis or openly speculated on untested treatments. Unreliable information is not necessarily a scandal, but it can lead to one.