It seemed for a moment that the challenge of leading a nation through a global pandemic might have tempered President Trump’s worst impulses to settle scores, blame others and promote his own political fortunes. Then he said Wednesday that he was invoking the Defense Production Act to help fight “our war against the Chinese virus.”

His choice of words was not a faux pas. Trump has been using the provocative term regularly even though he’s been criticized for it (and maybe even because he has been), suggesting that China is the villain behind America’s predicament rather than a victim of the same outbreak.

It put a sour spin on what was an otherwise important announcement about the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. The nation is facing a critical shortage of needed medical supplies and equipment, from ventilators to swabs. By wisely invoking the wartime powers law, Trump enabled the federal government to order manufacturers to produce these vital goods.

Ironically, the Defense Protection Act is necessary in part because of Trump’s imprudent fixation on China. His trade war placed tariffs on a vast array of Chinese-made products, including things we really need right now, such as medical equipment and protective gear for health care providers. As a result, China shifted its focus to other countries, and its sales to the U.S. slumped.

But instead of engaging in introspection about how his policies might have played a role in the shortage, not to mention in the United States’ delayed response to the outbreak, the president as usual tried to shift blame elsewhere. When asked by a reporter why he continued to refer to the coronavirus in terms that offended Chinese officials, Trump responded petulantly, “Because it comes from China. That’s why,” adding that Chinese officials shouldn’t have said that the outbreak was caused by an American soldier.

No, they shouldn’t have; there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that. Nevertheless, it’s rich to hear Trump complain about the conspiracy theory, given that he routinely trades in disinformation, legitimizing crackpot ideas while raising suspicions about objective facts.

The war of words between the two countries comes at a time when, like it or not, the U.S. needs China more than ever. Not just for producing so many products on which we depend, but for the knowledge gained by virtue of suffering through the first outbreak. We need all the data and all the help we can get right now about what worked and what didn’t to prepare for the expected onslaught of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

Trump, to put it mildly, doesn’t play well with other countries; his “America first” policy leans more toward barring immigrants, building walls and alienating traditional allies. But this crisis, like the climate crisis and other global challenges, is a reminder that we can’t sequester ourselves from the rest of the world and its problems.

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