Donald Trump's team is scrambling to control the fallout after he used the term "kung flu" to describe coronavirus at a campaign rally.
The US President was widely accused of racism after he used the term on Saturday night during his first presidential campaign rally in Oklahoma.
"It's a disease that without question has more names than any disease in history," he said at the event. "I can name kung flu, I can name 19 different versions of names. Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu; what difference?"
His use of the term sparked a backlash.
The President's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, came to his defence overnight, claiming Trump was trying to emphasise that the virus originated in China.
"It's a fair thing to point out as China tries to ridiculously rewrite history, to ridiculously blame the coronavirus on American soldiers," she told reporters. "President Trump is trying to say, 'No, China, I will label this virus for its place of origin.'"
Trump has repeatedly been accused of racism over his choices of phrasing to describe the virus. In March, he came under fire for calling Covid-19 "the Chinese virus" despite complaints it could put Asian-Americans at risk of increased discrimination.
He claimed he was merely stressing that the virus originated in China, and was trying to counter conspiracy theories by some Chinese officials that the virus was unleashed by the American military in Wuhan.
Trump's own senior counsellor Kellyanne Conway said the term "kung flu" was "wrong" and "highly offensive".
Back in March, when CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang tweeted that a White House official had used the term to her face, Conway demanded she name the official.
"I'd like to know who they are. But hold on, you can't just say that and not name them. Tell us who it was. Come up here and tell us who it was," she said, while gesturing to the reporter during a press conference in March.
She later added: "You can't just make an accusation and not tell us who it is. Who is it?"
"I think you understand how these conversations go," the CBS News journalist replied. "I am also a journalist."
Conway responded: "I don't know how these conversations go and that's highly offensive. So, you should tell us all who it is. I'd like to know who it is."
She went on: "I mean, I'm not engaging in hypotheticals. I'm married to an Asian … my kids are partly – I'm married to an Asian-American, my kids are 25 per cent Filipino."
Trump was also questioned about the phrase in March, with a reporter asking whether he thought it was "wrong" for a White House staffer to use the term.
"A person at the White House used the term kung flu. My question is, do you think that's wrong?" she asked the President.
"Kung flu?" Trump asked.
"Kung flu," she replied. "And do you think you think using the term 'Chinese virus,' that puts Asian-Americans at risk, that people might target that?"
Trump replied: "No, no no. Not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100 per cent. It comes from China. There's nothing not to agree with."
TRUMP BACKS DOWN ON 'SLOW THE TESTING' REMARK
"Kung flu" wasn't the only remark to raise eyebrows at Trump's first rally.
He also instructed his aides to "slow the testing down, please" – a remark he has since backtracked on.
The President's comments at the Oklahoma rally brought quick rebukes from the campaign of likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as well as scores of Democratic politicians.
In an interview with Scripps for its local TV stations, Trump was asked overnight whether he did indeed tell aides to "slow it down". He did not directly answer the question.
"If it did slow down, frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth," he said.
"We've done too good a job," he went on, adding that the reason the United States has more coronavirus cases is that it does more testing.
McEnany said any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact, and that the President made the slow-it-down comment "in jest".
She said Trump's comments were an effort to criticise the media for its coverage of the pandemic and its "failure" to understand "when you test more, you also find more cases".
However, the US is seeing disturbing trends in several benchmarks, including the percentage of positive tests.
Health officials say that testing in the United States early on was insufficient for optimal containment.
In early March, Dr Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, testified that the nation's testing system was "not really geared to what we need right now" and added: "It is a failing. Let's admit it."
But now, about half a million people per day are being tested, and the President and his aides have been repeatedly touting the United States as leading the world in testing rates.
The United States has confirmed 2.36 million COVID-19 cases, which represents just over a quarter of global cases.
More than 122,000 people in the US have died from the virus. The next closest nation is Brazil, with 51,400 deaths.
– with AP