State Watch

How Ebola entered the American consciousness: A Trump tweet

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In the summer of 2014, the world seemed to spin out of control. Pro-Russian separatists shot down a jumbo jet over Ukraine. Russian military forces massed at the border. A gang of murderous thugs calling themselves the Islamic State overran much of Syria and Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

And in three impoverished West African nations, one of the deadliest diseases known to man infected thousands in the most catastrophic outbreak of the Ebola virus ever recorded.

{mosads}Even as the Obama administration deployed teams from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans paid little attention to the Ebola outbreak rampaging in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone through that summer. News coverage focused on the crisis in Crimea, the growing threat of the Islamic State, and an economy still struggling to recover from the recession back home, just months before a midterm election in which most voters said economic issues were their top concern.

But in late July, the Ebola outbreak that seemed so distant came crashing into the collective consciousness. Two American missionaries, serving at a ramshackle hospital in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, came down with the Ebola outbreak, the first Americans in two decades to contract the disease.

The Obama administration scrambled to bring the Americans home. As Kent Brantly, who worked for Franklin Graham’s organization Samaritan’s Purse, and fellow missionary Nancy Writebol lay fighting for their lives in Monrovia, the State Department dispatched a flying ambulance owned by a company in the Atlanta suburbs to bring them to Emory University, home of the CDC and one of the few medical facilities capable of caring for them in isolation wards.

The air ambulance crossed the Atlantic for the first time on August 1, 2014, to pick up Brantly. At that same moment, somewhere in a skyscraper in New York City, Donald Trump opened his Twitter app.

“Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” Trump tweeted first, at 8:22 a.m.

Thirteen hours later, as the air ambulance prepared to bring Brantly home, Trump added: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!”

An analysis by the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy later found that Trump’s tweets represented a turning point, the moment when fear of the deadly virus began to infect the American public.

“It was that tweet that created a level of anxiety in the country,” said Amy Pope, a senior Obama administration counterterrorism official who worked on the outbreak. “That was a crystallizing moment.”

Little did Trump know that his initial tweets came at the moment when the White House was most worried that the Ebola virus would, in fact, spread to the United States. The occasion was the African Leaders Summit, which brought heads of state from fifty African nations to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the State Department and the White House itself.

The Obama administration worried that the summit, which included dozens of staff, hangers-on and members of the African media attached to each delegation, would inadvertently serve as the opportunity for Ebola to spread between delegations, or to civilians in the Washington area. Homeland Security officials and the CDC trained Secret Service officers to spot signs of the virus; high-level meetings were held to decide whether to keep someone who exhibited something as small as a cough out of official events.

Pope and others breathed a heavy sigh of relief on August 6, when the conference broke up without anyone showing symptoms.

Trump kept tweeting. In all, the self-admitted germaphobe tweeted about Ebola nearly a hundred times over the next three months. He was among the first to call for a travel ban between the three West African countries and the United States, a call later adopted by Republicans running in the fall midterms. He advocated against sending thousands of American troops, a decision public health officials in Liberia later said helped stem the tide of the outbreak.

And when a Liberian man fell ill days after arriving in Dallas to meet the son he had not seen in a decade, Trump warned: “IT WILL ONLY GET WORSE!” He later falsely accused the man, Thomas Eric Duncan, of having signed false papers. He advocated that Duncan be prosecuted, just days before Duncan died.

Brantly and Writebol walked out of the Emory hospital three weeks after arriving, cured of the virus but haunted by the physical and mental toll it had taken. Months later, visiting the Ebola response team at the White House, Brantly told the assembled staffers about his ordeal.

“I went to Liberia because I was called by God,” Brantly said. “I became deathly ill. I was alone, I couldn’t touch my children or my wife. I was going to die. And my government came to get me and saved my life.”

Around the room, the White House staffers wiped tears from their eyes.

Franklin Graham celebrated Brantly’s return and recuperation. Since then, he has emerged as an ardent defender of Trump, the man who advocated leaving Brantly to his fate in West Africa.

Adapted from the book “Epidemic: Ebola and the global scramble to prevent the next killer outbreak,” by Reid Wilson.

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