WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump on Wednesday held two campaign events in Florida, a critical battleground state facing a growing outbreak of the Zika virus. The GOP nominee for president had much to say about the ills he believes are plaguing the country, including illegal immigration, crime and terrorism. He did not, however, address how the U.S. ought to fight the mosquito-borne disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week urged pregnant women to avoid traveling to the area after the state announced 10 new cases of people who had likely contracted the virus in downtown Miami, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 14.
On Wednesday, the National Institutes of Health announced the government would exhaust its funding to combat the virus by the end of the month. Congress, whose action is needed to appropriate, is on vacation until after Labor Day.
Trump punted when asked how he would fight the spread of Zika in an interview with a local television station on Wednesday, deferring to the Florida governor, who has endorsed him for president.
“Well, first of all you have a great governor, who’s doing a fantastic job, Rick Scott, on the Zika,” Trump said, referring to prevention efforts underway in Miami. “And it’s a problem, it’s a big problem. But I watch and I see and I see what they’re doing with the spraying and everything else. And I think he’s doing a fantastic job. And he’s letting everyone know exactly what the problem is and how to get rid of it. He’s going to have it under control. He probably already does.”
Pressed how he thinks the federal government ― which is responsible for coordinating research to fight the virus, and which he is campaigning to lead ― ought to respond, Trump again deferred to Scott.
“I would say that it’s up to Rick Scott. It depends on what he’s looking to do, because he really seems to have it under control in Florida,” Trump said. Scott said last week the government “needs to do their part.”
But at least at his rallies, Trump appeared unconcerned with the spread of the virus, which when contracted by pregnant women can cause birth defects. His silence is especially notable since he owns property in Florida and employs hundreds of people at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach ― employees who would be directly impacted by the virus should the outbreak spread.
The GOP nominee also ignored Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), his former primary opponent, who urgently sounded the alarm over the virus in the Senate recently and called on Trump to address the virus earlier Wednesday.
“Hopefully that will change today, and the campaign will communicate and say something,” Rubio told reporters ahead of Trump’s campaign event in Daytona Wednesday afternoon.
Once a fierce critic of the brash businessman, Rubio has since given Trump a full-throated endorsement. He was rewarded on Wednesday, after Trump endorsed the senator on stage ahead of his crowded GOP primary.
Trump’s comments on Zika on Wednesday appear to be his first public statements about the virus. A spokeswoman did not respond to repeated requests for information on his plan to fight the virus. (His opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, released a plan to address the virus earlier this year.)
The closest the GOP nominee came to addressing Zika in public previously was during a brief aside last month after a mosquito interrupted his stump speech in Ohio.
“There was a mosquito. I don’t want mosquitoes around me!” Trump exclaimed. “I don’t like mosquitoes! I don’t like those mosquitoes. I never did!”
Ever on message, Trump then used the opportunity to take a swipe at Clinton.
“OK, speaking of mosquitoes — hello, Hillary. How are you doing?” he joked.
The GOP’s lack of attention to Zika is especially striking when compared to the panicked alarm it sounded over the threat of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was an early endorser of Trump, enforced quarantines at the time. GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill introduced legislation that would have imposed travel bans on those traveling from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa. Fear of the virus even affected the congressional midterms, as candidates accused each other of not doing enough to address the spread of the virus.
GOP officials have placed emphasis elsewhere this cycle. Juan Fiol, the Trump campaign’s vice chair for Miami-Dade County, may have summed it up best when he told the Boston Globe last month the country had to bigger fish to fry.
“We have bigger mosquitoes to squash than Zika — like ISIS, the national debt, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Fiol said, calling Clinton “sophomoric” for “taking on such an insignificant issue.” “We have a wall to build to keep the illegals out. We have so many other issues that are more important than this.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.