Trump tries to shift blame as virus outbreak rattles markets

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Donald Trump, Alex Azar

President Donald Trump listens to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, speaks about coronavirus during an Black History Month reception in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — As global markets plunged amid growing fears about the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump and his allies pulled from a familiar playbook Friday and blamed others for the slide. It’s a challenging sell for a president who has lashed his fate to Wall Street like no other.

The president’s team responded to the biggest one-week Wall Street sell-off in more than a decade with a deflection strategy, playing down the threat and eagerly parceling out responsibility to Democrats, the media and the entrenched government bureaucracy.

Trump tweeted that “The Do Nothing Democrats” had wasted time on impeachment and “anything else they could do to make the Republican Party look bad” while defending his own response, which many Democrats have deemed sluggish and scattershot.

At a political rally Friday night in North Charleston, South Carolina, Trump asserted that Democratic complaints about his handling of the coronavirus threat are “their new hoax,” echoing similar past complaints by the president about the Russia investigation and his impeachment.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called Trump’s language “absolutely dangerous.”

“Everything’s about him,” Biden said during a visit to a Greenville, South Carolina, polling site after it opened for Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary. “I know he’s a stable genius, but it’s ridiculous the thing’s he’s saying.”

Some of Trump’s closest allies amplified that message and accused the administration’s perceived enemies of hyping the threat posed by the virus, which has killed more than 2,800 people — most of them in China, where it originated.

“The flu kills people,” said acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering for conservative activists. “This is not Ebola. It’s not SARS. It’s not MERS. It’s not a death sentence. It’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”

Mulvaney went on to accuse the news media of giving short shrift to administration efforts to combat the virus — namely, barring entry by most foreign nationals who had recently visited China — in favor of focusing on negative stories about Trump.

“Why didn’t you hear about it? What was still going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment, that’s all the press wanted to talk about,” Mulvaney said. “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president. That’s what this is all about.”

The travel restrictions were widely covered in the news media.

Donald Trump Jr. embraced another unfounded conspiracy theory, claiming without evidence that Democrats were rooting for people to die.

“For them to take a pandemic and seemingly hope it comes here and kills millions of people so they can end Donald Trump’s streak of winning is a new level of sickness,” the president’s eldest son said on “Fox and Friends.”

The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Democrats, including Rep. John Garamendi of California, who said Trump Jr. should keep his distance after the “totally outrageous” comment because “there would be a serious altercation.”

The president has been consumed by the virus’ impact on Wall Street, peppering aides with questions about the markets and supply chains, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Even as the White House has ricocheted from scandal to controversy to tempest over the past three years, including the president’s impeachment, the nation’s economy has hummed steadily along, giving Republicans reason to stick with the president and bolstering Trump’s reelection chances.

While Trump remains confident in the economy, citing low unemployment numbers and growth in the GDP, he has told confidants that a recession or slowdown would be perilous to his presidency. His reelection campaign has built much of its messaging around a strong economy, and it fears becoming vulnerable to attacks on that front.

This week’s relentless sell-off has demonstrated how little authority Trump holds over the stock market, undermining his previous claims to voters in speeches and tweets that repeated gains reflected his leadership.

Instead, the Trump administration’s words and actions have inspired little confidence among investors who are grappling with the costs and disruptions of the actions needed to contain the virus that causes COVID-19. Investors have felt too afraid to hold out their hands and, in the parlance of traders, catch the falling knife that has been the U.S. stock market.

“We’re looking at a serious economic downturn because of coronavirus,” tweeted 2020 Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, “and the Trump administration is bungling every aspect of this crisis.”

The Dow Jones industrial average has suffered a steep decline since Monday. And while it could certainly recover, the risk is that lower stocks could ripple through the economy and hit consumer confidence and cause household spending to drop right as Trump ramps up his reelection efforts. This pullback could further hurt demand for manufactured goods.

“Consumer confidence may decline, and consumers may postpone purchase of big-ticket items like cars and appliances,” warned Steve Rick, chief economist at CUNA Mutual Group, an insurer that provides financial services to credit unions and cooperatives.

Trump’s own White House briefing room appearance this week did little to reassure investors. The administration tried to steady the markets again Friday with reassuring words from Larry Kudlow, a top Trump economic adviser. Kudlow said he believed the markets had gone “too far” in their sell-off and would soon bounce back.

“I just don’t think anybody ought to panic right now,” Kudlow said. “We’re going to stay the course on our policies: tax cuts and deregulation and energy and trade. And it’s worked, and the economy is sound.”

There appeared to be little the White House could do to reverse the slide.

The president added fuel to the nation’s economic growth with his 2017 tax cuts, and the resulting deficit spending caused economic growth to accelerate in 2018. But growth slowed in 2019, and analysts expect further deceleration this year.

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Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire and Boak at http://twitter.com/@joshboak

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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