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Trump feels the heat as coronavirus stalks US

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Washington (AFP)

Donald Trump felt the full brunt of the coronavirus crisis Monday as US stock prices went into a tailspin and it emerged that several lawmakers were exposed to the virus before meeting the president.

Trump, who flew back to Washington after a weekend golfing at his Florida resort and having dinner with Brazil's right-wing president, has spent weeks dismissing the seriousness of the threat.

But a dramatic run on stock market prices Monday robbed him of one of his main talking points when touting his successes ahead of the November presidential election. The Dow Jones closed 7.8 percent lower in the worst session since 2008.

And with pictures of a virus-hit cruise ship looming constantly on live television, Trump's tweet Monday that "life & the economy go on" even when thousands die from flu each year, seemed increasingly out of touch.

Alarm mounted further after at least two Republican lawmakers who recently met with the president announced they were going into self-quarantine, fearing that they were exposed to the virus at a conservative conference just outside Washington.

One of them, Representative Matt Gaetz, was traveling with Trump on Air Force One on Monday. Another, Representative Doug Collins, was with Trump on Friday during a coronavirus briefing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters.

With Trump potentially in the firing line, the spreading virus raises also questions over whether he will be able to continue holding the large rallies at the heart of his reelection campaign.

Stories of new cases flooded in across the country -- from a Washington, DC, church rector to the head of New York's ports authority, while stores ran out of hand sanitizer and masks. Twenty six people have now died in the United States after contracting COVID-19.

And on the West Coast -- where most of the US deaths have occurred -- the Grand Princess cruise ship docked at California's port of Oakland, for more than 2,400 passengers to be taken into treatment, or placed in quarantine, in a delicate, days-long operation.

At the White House, officials scrambled to present Trump with options for relieving embattled small business, hotels and others impacted by the economic fallout.

- 'Business as usual' -

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said there was no need for worry, denying reports that staff had been instructed to limit face-to-face meetings.

"Completely false," she said.

"While we have asked all Americans to exercise common-sense hygiene measures, we are conducting business as usual. I want to remind the media once again to be responsible with all reporting," Grisham said.

However, Trump himself appeared to be less than strict about sanitary guidelines, shaking hands along a rope line of well wishers while in Florida on Monday -- an entirely optional contact.

Since the worldwide COVID-19 epidemic began, Trump has veered between defending his government from accusations of incompetence to accusing Democrats and the media of exaggerating the crisis in an attempt to hurt his standing.

The crisis has landed Trump in a rare situation of losing control over his messaging -- a far cry from his usual aura, reinforced by friendly coverage on Fox News, of riding the booming economy to certain victory in November.

On Sunday he retweeted a meme showing himself playing the violin and the caption: "My next piece is called nothing can stop what's coming."

Trump apparently meant the bizarre meme in jest and himself said he didn't know "what this means."

Critics, though, quickly branded it the portrait of a modern Nero -- the mad emperor famous for fiddling while Rome burned.

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