Joni Ernst: Obama “failed" the response to Ebola, but Trump is “stepping forward” on coronavirus

Coronavirus deaths under Trump: 132,000. Ebola deaths under Obama: 2

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published July 6, 2020 5:47PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) on stage at the 2nd annual Joni Ernst Roast and Ride event on August 27, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump joined a number of Iowa Republicans speaking to a crowd of supporters. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) on stage at the 2nd annual Joni Ernst Roast and Ride event on August 27, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump joined a number of Iowa Republicans speaking to a crowd of supporters. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, argued that President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus is better than former President Barack Obama's response to Ebola, even though the coronavirus has killed about 132,000 more Americans thus far.

Only two people in the U.S. died from Ebola despite the loud chorus of Republicans castigating the federal response under Obama.

Trump repeatedly criticized Obama for not doing more in response to the virus and called on his predecessor to "apologize" and "resign," even though Obama sent 3,000 troops to Africa to help contain the spread. Only 11 confirmed cases were reported in the U.S.

Ernst, then a state senator running for her first term in Washington, was among the many Republicans who joined in the criticism.

Ernst, who had claimed that Obama was an overzealous "dictator" who was constantly "overstepping his bounds," also called the former commander in chief an "apathetic president" who was "just standing back and letting things happen."

Ernst said at the time that Obama "hasn't demonstrated" that he cares about Americans' safety, citing the Ebola response an example of his "failed leadership."

CNN host Dana Bash called out Ernst's remarks in a Sunday interview.

"Cases in your home state of Iowa have steadily risen for the last two weeks," Bash said. "You criticized President Obama in 2014 for his handling of the Ebola outbreak, saying that he showed 'failed leadership.' Only two people in the U.S. died from Ebola. Right now, there are almost 130,000 Americans dead from coronavirus. So if President Obama showed failed leadership then, do you think President Trump is showing failed leadership now?"

Ernst attempted to dodge the question, arguing that everyone has a "responsibility in stopping the spread" and downplaying the rise in her state by noting that there was only "one additional death" over the previous 24 hours.

"So given the fact that one person died there, that's only half the number that died during Ebola, which you said was failed leadership," Bash pressed, "Is the president right now exhibiting failed leadership?"

"No, I think that the president is stepping forward, and we have Vice President Mike Pence that is spearheading the task force efforts on the coronavirus," Ernst replied. "And so understanding where this came from, how it developed, of course, the pushback that we got from the Democrats when the president did try to shut down travel from some of those hot spots, it was an extremely difficult environment to operate."

Ernst's comments came after Trump refused to follow other world leaders in issuing a nationwide stay-at-home order and left the bulk of the response to individual governors, which has resulted in a patchwork of policies. Those policies have led to alarming increases in infections in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona, whose early reopenings were cheered on by the president. The U.S. set a record high in new infections for the 27th consecutive day on Sunday.

Ernst made the comments as she faces a tough re-election battle. Politico, which had predicted that Ernst would likely hold onto her seat, changed the race rating to "toss-up" this week.

"Ernst is no longer a significant favorite to win a second term," the outlet reported. "A Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll last month showed her narrowly trailing Democratic nominee Theresa Greenfield."

Election experts warned that the Republican Party could be in big trouble if Iowa, which Trump carried by nearly 10 points in 2016, is in the toss-up category.

"This feels like a little bit of a canary in the coal mine," Nate Silver, the founder of election forecaster FiveThirtyEight, said. "Ernst has been considered a rising star; Iowa has trended red; she hasn't had any particular scandals or gotten in any particular trouble. If this race is competitive, the GOP is in a lot of trouble in a lot of places."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Coronavirus Donald Trump Joni Ernst Pandemic