Trump's efforts to muzzle health officials and downplay coronavirus mirror the tactics of an authoritarian regime, experts say
President Donald Trump's response to the deadly coronavirus mirrors that of authoritarian regimes in some ways, experts on public health and authoritarianism told Insider. China and Iran have had conflicting messages between government leaders and medical experts, and have limited the speech of those critical of the government's response. The US's right-wing media also attacks those critical of the government's approach, a tactic routinely used by state media outlets in authoritarian regimes. Trump can't obfuscate and message his way around a potential pandemic. "One way or another, the truth will come out," an expert said. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
As American public health officials sound the alarm about the potential for a coronavirus epidemic in the US, President Donald Trump is insisting that there's nothing to worry about and that warnings about a potential pandemic are a "deep state" hoax perpetrated by his political opponents. On top of that, the president has appointed loyalists to head up a White House task force to respond to a potential outbreak in the US, and the White House has instructed some public health officials not to discuss any more matters related to the virus with the public without prior clearance. Meanwhile, Fox News and right-wing commentators are assailing public health officials and experts critical of the administration's virus response and the media who cover it, a pressure tactic used by state-run media under authoritarian regimes. In all, experts told Insider, the president and his allies' response to a potential pandemic has all the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime and could lead to dire consequences for the public in the event of an epidemic within the US.
Trump's attempts to muzzle scientific experts bear striking parallels to what's happening in China The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak has reached 2,858, with more than 83,000 people infected, as of Thursday night. China has seen a drop-off in its rate of new cases, but the virus seems to be gaining momentum in other parts of the world. As of Thursday, the coronavirus has spread to every province and region in China as well as at least 51 other countries. At least 64 people have died outside of mainland China. The unprecedented spread of the coronavirus is a massive test of Chinese President Xi Jinping's authoritarian system in China and the surveillance state he's built up over the years. Senior government officials have carried out efforts to silence doctors and local officials in Wuhan — the epicenter of the crisis — from getting information out to the public about what they believed was a SARS-like disease outbreak. "In China and Iran, both experiencing major outbreaks, early action has been undermined by efforts to halt and control free flow of information," which has limited the public's understanding and willingness to "share vital information with officials," said Matthew Kavanagh, an assistant professor of global health at Georgetown University. China's efforts to control messaging about the virus points to the fact that the country is more concerned with social and economic stability, as well as the image of Chinese President Xi Jinping's communist party, said Stephen Hess, a professor of political science at Transylvania University who is an expert on authoritarianism. Medical experts in China have also been barred from having frank discussions with the public about the risks of the disease, while government officials take over that responsibility instead. That's why public health experts were alarmed when Trump bypassed scientists and instead put Vice President Mike Pence — a loyalist with a spotty record of confronting health crises as a governor — in charge of controlling messaging on the spread of the virus. On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, reportedly told Pence that day that the "virus has adapted extremely well to human species" and appears to have a higher mortality rate than the flu virus. "We are dealing with a serious virus," Fauci said. After that, The New York Times reported that Fauci told associates the White House instructed him not to say anything else without further clearance. And on Friday, Fauci told lawmakers during a congressional briefing that he "was not muzzled" by Pence's office but that he was told not to do a series of planned Sunday show interviews. "Even Alex Azar," the secretary of Health and Human Services, "who was in charge of the White House task force on this — the president was concerned he was being overly alarmist by warning people the disease was likely to come to the US," Hess said. "So that's part of the motivation of putting Pence in charge, to control messaging and silence medical experts." Since taking over the White House's task force, Pence has also stacked it with top economic advisers like Larry Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. "These are not people who have anything to do with health or who have a background in infectious disease," Hess added. "It's interesting that you would have these people on the task force, and it raises questions about what the primary motivation is." Trump's handling of the outbreak 'smacks of the methods of an authoritarian government rather than a democracy' On Thursday, The Times and The Washington Post also detailed an official complaint from a HHS whistleblower who alleges that they were threatened with firing after reporting concerns about the way the department was training its employees to treat American evacuees from China and other hotbeds for the virus. According to the reports, the individual, who is a senior official based in Washington, DC, claims the US sent health officials to process evacuees at two bases in California without proper training or protective gear. The first instance of "community spread" of the virus was documented at one of those bases earlier this week. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, pointed to Trump's attempt to control messaging and silence public health experts and said it "smacks of the methods of an authoritarian government rather than a democracy that operates on the principles of transparency for the public good." Trump's behavior prior to coronavirus has also left the US ill-prepared to handle a public health challenge of this magnitude, experts warn. Ariana Berengaut, who oversaw messaging and communications strategy for key USAID initiatives during the Ebola outbreak under the Obama administration, told Insider that Trump has corroded the comparative advantages democracies typically have over authoritarian systems in approaching public health crises to "profound effect." This includes transparency, public trust, collaboration, and accountability. "The US is about to go through a very challenging time, where the hollowing out that Trump has been doing, eroding the democratic guardrails and strengths of this country, are going to be clear," Berenguat said. The White House has no credibility, Berengaut added, and the public has no reason to believe the administration's statements on coronavirus with Pence in control of messaging. She also pointed to the Trump administration's repeated decision to cut funding for pandemic preparedness and global health security. "These absolute failures of leadership to protect the American people are glaring," Berengaut said.
The right-wing media mimics state-run media in authoritarian regimes Then there's the right-wing media, which often acts as a Trump defender whose talking points echo those of the White House. The conservative radio and TV hosts Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have both spread conspiracy theories suggesting the coronavirus is the same as the "common cold" and that Democratic lawmakers are hyping up the risks to hurt Trump. "They are trying to use this coronavirus to scare the hell out of everybody in their madcap hopes of finding something that will get rid of Donald Trump," Limbaugh said. "It's exactly like the panic and fearmongering you heard for two years over Russia meddling in and stealing the election." Ingraham struck a similar chord. "Democrats and their media cronies have decided to weaponize fear and also weaponized suffering to improve their chances against Trump in November," she said during her Wednesday night program. "The facts don't matter to the Trump haters." The right-wing media is amplifying the agenda of the administration in a cloak of patriotism while trying to shame and silence voices that are critical of it, said Hess, who noted this is a hallmark in authoritarian countries. "There's this effort here to craft the truth about the disease for political purposes, and certainly partisan media is operating in a similar way to how state media functions in places like China," Hess said. In China and Iran, the governments' censorship enables regimes to manipulate statistics and restrict people's access to raw numbers. But in the US, official statistics are far less prone to manipulation. The US stock market is one sign of falling confidence. Indeed, the Dow Jones is at the tail end of its worst week since the 2008 financial crisis as it headed into the seventh day of massive sell-offs amid coronavirus fears. "The president's effort to control the messaging and put Pence in control didn't ease investors' fears," Hess said. "We see the markets continuing to plummet even after that, it's almost like they voted against his claims because there's a lack of confidence in what the president's response is." In the end, Hess said, "the truth will come out one way or another."SEE ALSO: A government whistleblower alleges US health workers treated coronavirus evacuees without proper protective gear or training Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Extremists turned a frog meme into a hate symbol, but Hong Kong protesters revived it as an emblem of hope
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Dr. Anthony Fauci at the White House on Friday rejected a conspiracy theory that the novel...Dr. Anthony Fauci at the White House on Friday rejected a conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab. Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious disease, said the available evidence on the origins of the virus is "totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human." Fox News and Republican allies of President Donald Trump have been pushing the lab narrative hard in recent days, despite a lack of hard evidence to back it up. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious disease, on Friday, rejected a conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus escaped a Chinese lab. "A group of highly-qualified evolutionary virologists looked at the sequences in bats as they evolve. The mutations that it took to get to the point where it is now is totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human," Fauci said at the daily White House press briefing in response to a question from a reporter on the theory, which has been pushed by President Donald Trump's allies in recent days. The precise origins of the novel coronavirus, which is officially known as SARS-CoV-2 and causes the disease COVID-19, remain somewhat of a mystery. But, as Fauci underscored in his remarks on Friday, studies of the virus' genome have strongly indicated that it was transmitted from an animal to a human. "We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible," an analysis published in Nature Medicine in mid-March said. The study, led by computational biologist Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in California, compared COVID-19 to the six other coronaviruses known to infect humans. The analysis explicitly states that the evidence shows SARS-CoV-2 "is not a purposefully manipulated virus." But as research on the origins of the novel coronavirus continues, some in the Trump administration, including the president, are seemingly still open to the possibility it escaped from a Chinese lab. "More and more, we're hearing the story, and we'll see," Trump said on Thursday. Trump suggests there's merit to a Fox News story about the novel coronavirus originating in a lab in China pic.twitter.com/8HkVeiJQns — Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 15, 2020 On Friday, when asked "how active" the investigation was into whether the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan, China, Trump said: "We are looking at it. A lot of people are looking at it. It seems to make sense ... We are going to find out." "A lot of strange things are happening ... We're going to find out," Trump added. But the US intelligence community has looked into the theory for months and hasn't found hard evidence to back it up, according to a report from Politico, which cited multiple sources familiar with the matter. An administration official told Politico, "There's no consensus." Trump on Wuhan lab investigation:“We’re looking at it, a lot of people are looking at it. It seems to make sense. … There is a lot of investigation going on and we’re going to find out." pic.twitter.com/nw6KDIpcl1 — JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) April 17, 2020 Fox News has been leading the charge on the Chinese lab conspiracy theory Meanwhile, Fox News, the president's preferred TV network, has been pushing the lab narrative hard over the past week. "Sources believe coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab as part of China's efforts to compete with US," a report published on Wednesday and co-authored by Fox News anchor Bret Baier said. Along these lines, Trump's advisers and congressional allies have been hammering China in recent days, excoriating the Chinese government over its lack of transparency in relation to coronavirus. GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas on Wednesday told Sean Hannity of Fox News that China "must be made to pay the price" if it's determined the virus came out of a Wuhan lab. Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday told Fox News: "We really need the Chinese Government to open up. They say they want to cooperate. One of the best ways they could find to cooperate would be to let the world in, to let the world's scientists know exactly how this came to be, exactly how this virus began to spread." Trump denies the US has the most coronavirus deaths as his administration defends the country's testing capacity Trump on Friday also expressed skepticism over the Chinese government's official death toll from the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China. Based on the available data, the US is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with the highest number of reported cases and confirmed deaths. But Trump dismissed those numbers. "We don't have the most in the world deaths. The most in the world has to be China. It is a massive country...they must have the most," Trump said during Friday's press briefing. As of Friday evening, there were nearly 700,000 reported cases of coronavirus in the US, and over 36,000 confirmed deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Comparatively, the data said China has seen nearly 84,000 cases and over 4,600 deaths. Beyond Trump, there's been widespread skepticism across the international community over China's official numbers, but the Chinese government has rejected allegations of a coverup. Amid the increased focus on China, the Trump administration continues to face strong criticism from Democratic lawmakers and public health experts over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump spent weeks downplaying the threat of the virus on top of early stumbles at the federal level that left the US behind much of the world on testing for the virus. Some Democrats and former US officials have accused Trump of using China, and more recently the World Health Organization (WHO), as a scapegoat to deflect from his own failures in handling coronavirus. The president earlier this week announced a plan to cut funding to the WHO, criticizing the agency for praising China's transparency in the early days of the outbreak. But Trump was also praising China in this regard around the same time and continued to applaud its handling of the crisis well into February as the virus was spreading in the US. China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020 Trump has pushed back hard on any criticism of his response and berated reporters who've questioned him about the testing shortages in the US. Vice President Mike Pence and other officials on the coronavirus task force on Friday said that the capacity of testing for coronavirus in the US has increased to a point where governors can initiate the first of three phases that are part of the administration's guidelines on easing social distancing and reopening the economy. But earlier on Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphasized that his state, which has been hit the hardest by the novel coronavirus, still needs help from the federal government with testing. VP Pence on coronavirus testing and reopening the U.S. economy: “Today, we have a sufficient amount of testing to meet the requirements of a Phase 1 reopening, if state governors should choose to do that” pic.twitter.com/AnX24wi8hc — QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) April 17, 2020 On Monday, Trump falsely claimed he had "total" authority to force governors to end coronavirus restrictions in order to restart the economy, but he backtracked by Thursday and said he would leave such decisions up to the states. By Friday, however, Trump was on Twitter encouraging residents of Virginia and Michigan to "liberate" their states, which came as some states have seen protests against stay-at-home orders. When asked about this at Friday's press briefing, Trump said he did not think his tweets were at odds with the administration's measured guidance for easing restrictions that leaves the timeline up to governors. 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Republicans are worried Trump is hurting himself with rally-like performances at coronavirus briefings and are urging him to step back
Republicans are encouraging President Donald Trump to take a step back at daily coronavirus press briefings...Republicans are encouraging President Donald Trump to take a step back at daily coronavirus press briefings and let the experts lead the way, The New York Times reported on Thursday. The briefings have gone "off the rails," one GOP senator said, and Trump should "let the health professionals guide where we're going to go." Trump's approval numbers saw a slight bump at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, but they've started to dip in recent days as Americans increasingly express disapproval of his handling of the pandemic. The president left Thursday's coronavirus press briefing earlier than usual. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. Top Republicans are concerned that President Donald Trump is hurting his reelection chances with rally-like performances at the daily White House press briefings on coronavirus, the New York Times reported on Thursday, and are urging him to step back and let medical experts take the helm. Senate Majority Mitch McConnell in the early days of the coronavirus crisis privately encouraged Trump to let Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx — the leading medical experts on the White House coronavirus task force — to spearhead the daily briefings, according to The Times. Many Americans are seemingly on the same page as the Republican leader. Last month, a top public health expert at Harvard told Insider that Trump should "stop talking" and let Fauci and Birx take the spotlight. Recent Insider polling found that Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious disease who has appeared at nearly every White House briefing, is the most trusted voice in the country when it comes to the pandemic. But the optics-obsessed, former reality TV star has dominated the lectern at the briefings recently, often pushing disinformation and misleading the public about his handling of the deadly virus. Because of this, some major TV networks have cut away from the briefings or stopped airing them altogether. Most Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as he tries to replace his raucous campaign rallies with the daily briefings Unable to safely hold campaign rallies amid the coronavirus pandemic, the daily press briefings have emerged as a substitute for Trump. The president has used the briefings as an opportunity to lash out at critics and bash the media, as he's typically done at campaign events, and he's boasted about the number of people who've tuned in for them each day. Because the “Ratings” of my News Conferences etc. are so high, “Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers” according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. “Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.” said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 29, 2020 Though the president seems to have enjoyed the daily attention, Trump's aides and congressional allies are concerned the president's behavior during the briefings is boosting former Vice President Joe Biden's chances of beating him in November. Particularly as a majority of Americans (55%) now say the federal government has done a poor job responding to the pandemic, according to a CNN poll released this week, and most (52%) disapprove of Trump's handling of the crisis. Meanwhile, Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee after Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race this week, is leading Trump by significant margins in recent polls. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told the Times that Trump "sometimes drowns out his own message." Graham said he told Trump that his "opponent is no longer Joe Biden — it's this virus," and suggested that he appear once a week rather than every day. The conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board on Thursday excoriated Trump for his demeanor at the press briefings and echoed Graham's warnings about taking on Biden during the pandemic. "The President's outbursts against his political critics are also notably off-key at this moment," the Journal's editorial board wrote. "If Mr. Trump thinks these daily sessions will help him defeat Joe Biden, he's wrong. This election is now about one issue: how well the public thinks the President has done in defeating the virus and restarting the economy." In the course of roughly a month, coronavirus has altered virtually every aspect of American life and decimated the US economy. Nearly 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past few weeks, as the US has simultaneously emerged as the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic with the most confirmed cases worldwide. Trump's native state of New York, which has been hit harder than any other by the pandemic, had more reported cases of coronavirus than any country in the world as of Thursday (over 160,000). The novel coronavirus has claimed over 16,000 lives in the US so far and infected over 460,000 people across the country. The president has been broadly criticized for his handling of coronavirus. The president ignored myriad warnings, which many public health experts have said left the US unprepared for a pandemic, while he downplayed the threat of the virus for weeks. While governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York have seen a huge rise in their approval numbers due to their handling of the crisis, Trump saw only a modest boost in polling early on in the crisis, and there are growing signs the country is turning against the president as his approval numbers have dipped in recent days. It's in this context that a growing number of Republicans want Trump to step back from center-stage at the daily briefings. 'Let the health professionals guide where we're going to go' GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia told The Times the president should "let the health professionals guide where we're going to go," stating that the briefings have gone "off the rails a little bit." A top adviser to Trump, who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president, said Vice President Mike Pence should be leading the briefings because he's spearheading the coronavirus task force and has a better understanding of the latest details. The adviser also said Pence is better at projecting empathy than the president. But a White House spokesperson in a statement to The Times rejected the notion Trump has a messaging problem: "Any suggestion that President Trump is struggling on tone or message is completely false. During these difficult times, Americans are receiving comfort, hope, and resources from their president, as well as their local officials, and Americans are responding in unprecedented ways." Trump left Thursday's coronavirus press briefing early, citing the need to get back to ongoing negotiations on oil and airlines, and the vice president led the rest of the briefing. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider as to whether the president's early departure on Thursday was linked to recent GOP criticism of Trump's performances at the briefings. 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