IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump doubles down that he's not fueling racism, but experts say he is

"It's fueling the xenophobia we’re seeing all over our districts," said New York Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

President Donald Trump doubled down on his use of the term "Chinese virus" during a news conference on the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, two days after he drew backlash for using the term on Twitter.

Trump defended his rhetoric in response to a question from ABC News' Cecilia Vega. When she brought up a wave of discrimination toward Chinese Americans, he responded that the phrase is "not racist at all, not at all."

"It comes from China. That's why," he said, explaining why he continues to use the term. "I want to be accurate."

Trump further rationalized his language, pointing out that a Chinese official floated the idea that U.S. soldiers had brought the illness to Wuhan, where the outbreak is said to have originated.

"I have great love for all of the people from our country. But as you know, China tried to say, at one point — maybe they stopped now — that it was caused by American soldiers. That can't happen. That's not going to happen. Not as long as I'm president."

John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, told NBC Asian America that Trump's wording isn't just innocuous and is having a dangerous impact.

"I absolutely think that words used by him matter," he said. "Certainly use of this term by him and others even in the last couple of weeks have led to a noticeable incline in hate incidents that we are seeing. I do think that there is a correlation."

State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents New York City's Chinatown, said she has witnessed the virus' toll on her own community. She remarked that Trump is "fueling the flames of racism with all of his comments."

"To continue calling COVID-19 the 'Chinese virus,' is to basically be racist. It's fueling the xenophobia we're seeing all over our districts," she said.

Niou also said she thinks Trump's comments make it so that citizens feel "justified" in their racism, playing off their already-heightened anxiety.

"When people already fear something, they now have something to blame for it," she said.

Trump's words also contradict remarks from many officials, including the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who noted during a hearing last week that the phrase is inaccurate. The World Health Organization named the virus COVID-19, and cautions against naming diseases after locations in an effort to avoid stigmatization.

Trump also fielded a question from PBS' Yamiche Alcindor regarding an incident that CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang tweeted about Tuesday. Jiang wrote that "this morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the "Kung-Flu" to my face."

"Makes me wonder what they're calling it behind my back," Jiang tweeted.

Trump said he does "not at all" believe such terms put Asian Americans at risk.

"I think they probably would agree with it 100 percent," he said of Asian Americans. "It comes from China."

Contrary to Trump's response, Niou noted that many Asian Americans in her district think his practice of identifying the illness by ethnicity is "disgusting."

Niou said she's received numerous calls from those in her own district, reporting incidents of bullying and harassment tied to the pandemic. The lawmaker herself has been on the receiving end of hateful attacks.

"There have been people standing there, shouting at me, 'corona, corona, corona,'" she said. "People have called my office saying I eat bats."

Trump's remarks prompted many Asian Americans, including Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., to dissect how harmful the phrase can be, pointing out that the group was already seen as "perpetual foreigners" in the country prior to the virus' spread, and that people have been misplacing blame on those from the U.S.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also drew backlash Wednesday for defending Trump's language, saying that "China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that's why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu."

Since the outbreak started in January, several Asian Americans have reported being targeted by racist hate crimes or incidents. In New York City, a 23-year-old woman was hospitalized after another woman allegedly punched her in the face and made anti-Asian slurs. In California, an Asian teen was bullied and assaulted, requiring a visit to the ER, due to fears surrounding the coronavirus.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., previously told NBC News that it's possible the legislators have continued to use the rhetoric to distract from Trump's handling of the pandemic. She said it's likely that officials are using China or Asian Americans as scapegoats "versus actually dealing with the problem at hand."

Yang explained that ultimately, questions around the administration's handling of the virus are irrelevant to the discrimination Asian Americans are facing.

"Quite frankly, I don't care what certain lawmakers' intentions might be in using this term," he said. "There is real harm that is being caused by using these words. This is not a semantic debate. This is about real people's lives and safety."

CORRECTION (March 18, 2020, 10:15 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of a senator who said China was to blame for the coronavirus. He is John Cornyn, R-Texas, not Corbyn. The article also misspelled the first name of an ABC News correspondent. She is Cecilia Vega, not Cecelia.