Trump called it the 'Wuhan coronavirus' for a legal — and commonsensical — reason

Amid the truly weighty concerns attendant to the COVID-19 pandemic, the silly season, of course, broke out in Washington: A debate over whether the infectious disease in question should be referred to as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or whether doing so is, as the anti-Trump left and its media megaphone allege, emblematic of racism.

The manufactured controversy is as transparently political as it is ill-conceived. The question of the pathogen’s source is being framed to imply Trumpist xenophobia. To the contrary, it is a relevant consideration in the federal government’s legal authority to respond.

Early this year, as the outbreak became manifest in China and began its relentless march through Southeast Asia and into Europe, the American press itself alluded incessantly to the Wuhan coronavirus. The sudden case of talking-head amnesia over this is being greeted in conservative media by hilarious video montages featuring the same scolds, who now decry the term, matter-of-factly invoking it back then. 

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Sensibly, it could not have been otherwise. Wuhan province was the epicenter of the outbreak. The major story at the start involved suppression by the authoritarian communist regime in Beijing of news and vital information about it. 

Nor was this just a typical case of our vainglorious commentariat flaunting its cosmopolitan cred. As my National Review colleague Rich Lowry has recounted, there is a long history of naming diseases after their country or region of apparent origin, everything from West Nile virus to German measles to MERS, which stands for “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome.”

But there is a Republican in the White House, so what was mundane yesterday is racist today. 

The politicized derangement of the media-Democrat complex is more damaging to the media than it is to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE. In electing him, ardent supporters took him as a showman given to self-absorption and exaggeration; while, for more tepid supporters, the Democrats’ howling about Donald Trump’s, shall we say, economical relationship with the truth was not very persuasive given that they had chosen to nominate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton on US leading in coronavirus cases: Trump 'did promise "America First"' Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines Clintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus MORE. The president can prevaricate, but if his results are satisfactory, or at least preferable to the Democratic alternative, he could still convince the country to reelect him. 

By contrast, if the media loses its last vestiges of credibility, it has nothing to commend it. Case in point: This past weekend, the Washington Post ran an excellent report on why “social distancing,” especially when the effort is stepped up, is superior to attempted quarantines and other less effective ways of combating a viral outbreak. But how widely circulated was the report among the population it seeks to inform? The Post’s bread-and-butter is straight reporting, yet it has proudly become the vanguard of anti-Trump. Who is paying attention anymore?

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The fact that Wuhan province was the source of the virus was the dispositive factor in the president’s decision in late January to restrict entry into the United States by foreigners who had been in China the preceding 14 days. If you had been consuming only the media coverage over the past week, you’d think that was just common sense. But because media coverage prioritizes political spin over information, the first reports conveyed caterwauling about Trump’s purported xenophobia, his knee-jerk overreaction based on a supposedly deep-seated hostility to non-white populations. 

Today, Trump’s decision seems prescient. Indeed, it may even have been insufficiently swift and expansive. (Many other nations since have been included, and now are imposing their own border restrictions.) In any event, the president will not get credit for sound decisiveness. To be sure, some of this is because he is fairly accused of squandering much of the benefit by pooh-poohing the virus in his rhetoric. Mostly, though, it is because the political tide has changed. The Democratic narrative is now that Trump is ill-informed and unsuited to manage a health emergency.

Ultimately, the president will be judged by how effectively his administration deals with the crisis — not by his banter about how well in hand things are, nor by the counter-portrait of ineptitude his opposition is sketching. On that score, this weekend Trump formally declared a national emergency under the Stafford Act. This 1988 statute empowers the executive, when a catastrophe strikes, to take robust measures in support of the response by overwhelmed state and municipal governments. This includes immediately making available about $50 billion in federal disaster relief funding. 

This is extraordinary authority. The president is not a king. The chief executive may not willy-nilly conjure up an “emergency” as a pretext for issuing orders that could undermine state sovereignty, and for doling out federal dollars that Congress should be allocating. 

So, when is the invocation of emergency powers permissible? Congress has vested the president with this authority when a threat to the security and public health of any part of the United States is sufficiently grave to warrant a federal response. In our constitutional system, there are certain situations and categories of activity that automatically trigger federal authority. Most prominent among these are foreign relations, foreign incursions, border security, and matters related to foreign commerce, as well as commerce between the states — which, obviously, may be impacted by foreign commerce.

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Consequently, the origination of the virus in China and its transcontinental spread across the globe are highly relevant. They rationalize the president’s authority to address the emergency with Washington’s awesome resources. As President Trump put it in his letter this weekend:

“Only the Federal Government can provide the necessary coordination to address a pandemic of this national size and scope caused by a pathogen introduced into our country. It is the preeminent responsibility of the Federal Government to take action to stem a nationwide pandemic that has its origins abroad, which implicates its authority to regulate matters related to interstate matters and foreign commerce and to conduct the foreign relations of the United States.”

Moreover, the president’s letter elaborates, Congress has explicitly authorized the chief executive, in an emergency, “to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession.”

Not only did history and common sense justify the administration (among others) in noting the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus. Doing so was a legal necessity if the imperative of federal support for beleaguered state governments was to be fulfilled.

We’re in a crisis, folks. What do you say if, in the American spirit of every crisis from the Revolutionary War to 9/11, we take it as a given that officials, including the president, are acting with the best interests of the nation in mind? There will be plenty of occasions in this national election year to judge their performance. For now, let’s assume their good faith.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is “Ball of Collusion.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.