At President Donald Trump’s coronavirus press briefing on Wednesday, a reporter confronted him about how he has begun referring to it: the “Chinese virus.”
The question came from ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega, who challenged Trump to explain why he’d just used that term instead of “coronavirus” or “COVID-19,” which is the disease caused by the virus.
“There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country,” she stated. “Your own aides have said, ‘He does not use this term ... that ethnicity does not cause the virus.’ Why do you keep using this? A lot of people say it’s racist.”
Trump dismissed the nuances she posed in her question.
“Because it comes from China. It’s not racist at all,” he replied. “No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why.”
Later, he insisted that Asian Americans would agree “100%” with using the phrase.
What Trump didn’t explain is why, after nearly two months of properly referring to it as “coronavirus,” he suddenly started using a term this week that lays blame on Chinese people and ― whether intentionally or not ― encourages prejudice and violence against people of Chinese or Asian descent.
Trump called it the Chinese virus on Twitter for the first time Monday, the same day his tone about the outbreak suddenly shifted: He began to talk about it seriously, rather than calling it a “hoax” and claiming that conditions were already improving across the U.S.
Since then, he’s tweeted the phrase “Chinese Virus,” as he styles it, four more times and denied that he ever downplayed the outbreak’s seriousness.
As Trump has leaned into scientists’ warnings that COVID-19 poses a major threat to the U.S., he’s also leaned into the hateful rhetoric that’s been circulating among xenophobes and right-wing pundits for weeks.
For weeks, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and others have repeated the narrative that China is at fault for the coronavirus outbreak.
“Identity politics trumped public health and not for the first time,” Carlson said in late February while discussing concerns others had for the safety of Asian Americans. “Wokeness is a cult. They would let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength.” (The latter is a common white nationalist phrase.)
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), meanwhile, has pushed the conspiracy theory that a Chinese “super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens” intentionally created the virus.
The buck may not stop at “Chinese virus.” During his Wednesday press conference, a separate reporter pressed Trump to react to another racist term for the virus: “kung flu,” which a White House official reportedly used when speaking to an Asian American reporter.
Trump didn’t say whether he believes the term is acceptable, and instead pondered aloud, “I wonder who said that.”