Asked to explain the logic behind the term ‘kung flu’ referring to China, even though ‘kung flu’ does not refer to a specific place, Conway said: “Excuse me, how do you know the way people, how do you know that people aren’t anticipating that or not connecting that? You don’t know that. While the president is saying it, he’s also saying this virus came from China. China is responsible… He said it’s called many different things, it’s called the Wuhan virus, the Chinese virus, and then he used another term.”
In March, when a reporter said she had heard about White House staffers using the term, Conway demanded the names of the staffers allegedly saying “kung flu.”
“Of course it’s wrong,” Conway said at the time. “That’s highly offensive, so you should tell us all who it is.”
Conway did not repeat that characterization on Wednesday, but said the president was not surrounded by yes-men.
“I speak to the president daily, on a number of different topics,” Conway said. “We don’t always agree on everything.”
Trump’s use of this racist phrase is part of a pattern of seeking to use inflammatory rhetoric for political gain. He’s repeatedly blurred distinctions between protesters demonstrating against police brutality and “thugs” destroying property, while emphasizing the foreign origins of a virus that has now killed more than 120,000 Americans. On Monday night, the president tweeted several videos, with no context or explanation, that purported to show Black people attacking white people.
Cabinet officials, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have used the term “Wuhan virus” to refer to the disease, which was first recognized in a city in central China. Under criticism from the WHO and Asian-American advocacy groups, Pompeo has defended that phrase by saying it denotes the geographic origin of the outbreak, though he appears to have stopped using it.
But the president’s use of a racist term his own top aide has denounced illustrates his willingness to brook harsh criticism of his use of language, as well as his cavalier attitude about offending demographic groups his own advisers have tried to court.
Trump first labeled the novel coronavirus as “kung flu” in public last weekend at a rally in Tulsa, Okla.
“I can name ‘kung flu,’ I can name 19 different versions of names,” Trump said. “Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu, what difference?”
On Tuesday night at an event in Phoenix, Trump again said the term when prompted by the crowd, eliciting loud cheers.
Experts warn that Trump’s use of the term could lead to a spike in anti-Asian American discrimination in the U.S. Advocacy groups have found anti-Chinese rhetoric during the pandemic is connected with racist acts against Asian Americans.