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Stock markets tumbled around the world. The number of coronavirus cases mushroomed in advanced nations like Italy, Japan and South Korea. And travel bans expanded as leaders confronted the nightmarish prospect of a spreading virus swallowing their nations.
President Donald Trump’s top aides faced an increasingly urgent threat Monday with potentially monumental implications: a global outbreak knocking down the U.S. economy and walloping markets in an election year, all against accusations about whether the Trump administration had mismanaged and underfunded a critical response with American lives on the line.
A swift drop in the stock market — the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 1,000 points, its largest slide in two years — jolted officials in the White House and across Washington, delivering implications from the long-simmering coronavirus threat to a wider swath of Americans.
“The view in the White House is that this is one of those classic black swan events, and all we can do is control the health issues in the U.S.,” said Stephen Moore, an informal economic adviser to the Trump team.
The still-mysterious coronavirus — which is hard to detect, poses high risk to the elderly and may in some cases be transmitted by people who show no symptoms — has infected more than 78,000 people abroad, although only 53 people now in the United States are confirmed to have contracted the virus, almost entirely overseas.
With the possibility of a U.S. outbreak growing by the day, Trump allies and advisers have grown increasingly worried that a botched coronavirus response will hit the U.S. economy. Even Donald Trump Jr. has mused to associates he hopes the White House does not screw up the response and put the president’s best reelection message at risk, said two individuals with knowledge of his comments.
“Trump’s reelection effort is so closely tied to the strength of the stock market and the economy,” said Moore, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and 2016 Trump campaign adviser. “Anything that shakes us off of that pro-growth track is a concern, but I think the view of officials in the White House is that this will be contained.”
“Once the virus is contained, the market will bounce right back,” Moore added.
Trump himself took a break from his two-day trip to India to weigh in on coronavirus, tweeting that the virus was under control in the United States. “We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” he wrote late Monday afternoon.
The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2020
But inside the White House, officials have been quietly studying models of the pandemic’s potential effect on both the U.S. and the global economy, said one Republican close to the White House. Among policy aides, there‘s widespread concern that the spread of the coronavirus will hit a slew of industries including manufacturers, airlines, automakers and tech companies, slowing down both the U.S. and Chinese economies. Aides fear the White House has few economic tricks it can deploy to lessen the impact.
Meanwhile, officials like acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and domestic policy chief Joe Grogan have turned their fire on HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who’s leading the coronavirus response, arguing that Azar has poorly coordinated the strategy, failed to escalate the potential risks to Trump and pushed for a multibillion-dollar emergency-funding request that they initially viewed as extreme, said four individuals familiar with the matter.The Trump administration on Monday night announced a request for $2.5 billion in emergency coronavirus cash, which would also shift at least $535 million in previously committed funds.
Funding the response had been a major sticking point between the White House and Azar, who lobbied to request additional funds from Congress before he makes four separate hearings on the Hill this week. Officials had spent days jockeying over the final figure for the emergency package, veering anywhere between $1 billion to $5 billion. The package also is expected to face resistance from Democrats, who have warned the Trump administration against shifting money away from existing commitments.
The White House and HHS both maintained that the task force is working in tandem and defended Azar’s leadership.
“There is zero disagreement between HHS, [National Security Council], the White House, and other members of the task force,” Mulvaney said in a statement. “Secretary Azar is the right person to lead this effort, and any reporting to the contrary is just false.”
"OMB and HHS have been in lockstep throughout this entire process," said Derek Kan, a top White House budget deputy who's also working on coronavirus efforts. An HHS spokesperson denied that the White House and Azar had disagreed over the emergency-funding request.
But the pressure-packed coronavirus fight has reopened year-old cracks between the White House and Azar, who has few allies in the White House and was seen as weakened by his own recent feud with Medicare chief Seema Verma. Two of Azar’s allies said they worried that the secretary’s job is at risk if the coronavirus response goes poorly.
Administration officials also have traded blame over the evacuation of 14 Americans from a cruise ship who were confirmed to have coronavirus, fueled by Trump’s anger over the episode. The decision to evacuate the Americans — who were placed on a plane with other Americans, over the objections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has sparked finger-pointing and second-guessing for days. Japanese officials didn’t inform their U.S. counterparts that the 14 had tested positive until they were already aboard buses with the other American cruise ship passengers heading for the airport.
Some officials worry that the U.S. is missing potential coronavirus infections of its own, especially as clusters of cases emerge in countries like Iran, prompting that nation's neighbors Turkey, Pakistan and Armenia to close their borders. The U.S. surveillance effort has been hampered by the failure of the health department’s tests, with public health labs on Monday asking for permission to use their own homegrown tests rather than wait on the CDC.
“If we have an outbreak in the United States and didn’t pick it up, that’s going to be a public health mistake of historic proportion,” said a former senior HHS official.
Some White House officials also remain frustrated by the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak, but Trump has been hesitant to publicly criticize President Xi Jinping. Democrats have seized on Trump’s wariness, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday calling on Trump to demand that Xi “end the secrecy and suppression of facts around coronavirus.” China spent more than three weeks rebuffing U.S. offers to send health officials to help with its outbreak and delayed reporting key details of the epidemic.
Public health groups have chastised the Trump administration for not moving faster to fund a response. “Major investments are needed to assist in this global health security challenge, which is directly impacting our nation’s health,” the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and three other organizations wrote on Monday.
Advocates also criticized the administration’s significant cuts to pandemic preparedness — including a proposal to cut $1.3 billion from CDC’s discretionary spending in the president’s recent budget blueprint — which they say have left the nation less prepared to deal with an outbreak.
With the Trump administration now staring down a potential pandemic, urgency — and an immediate funding infusion — are essential to ensure that the U.S. is prepared, experts said.
“Every day that goes by is another day that you don’t have money to partner with private entities to develop vaccines, to invest in equipment,” said Chris Meekins, a Raymond James analyst and former HHS emergency-preparedness official in the Trump administration. “Time is not your friend in these situations — especially if you assume that the virus is not going to dissipate in the summer.”
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.