After three days of tumbling stocks, a steady stream of negative news stories, and withering criticism from lawmakers of all stripes, President Trump took to TV screens Wednesday to defend his administration’s response to the coronavirus.
He then placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge, which appeared to be news to Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar.
The administration has asked for only $2.5 billion in emergency funding, which the president said is “a lot” in the high-profile press conference at the White House. Then he jumped in front of GOP leaders at the Capitol by basically agreeing to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s new call to allocate $8.5 billion to combat the virus.
“We’ll take it. We’ll take it,” Trump told reporters. He then pivoted into the unscripted question-and-answer portion and called Schumer “Crying Chuck Schumer” before he accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of “trying to create a panic.”
But lawmakers in both parties accuse Trump — and many of the seven officials who flanked him during the presser — of causing the panic because of the numerous conflicting messages that have come from the president, his Cabinet and public health officials.
“You just have to wonder: Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing? Are they in sync from the White House to his Cabinet secretaries?” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) told VICE News while walking on the Capitol grounds. “I question – based on all of the different information that's coming from all over the place – whether they know what's going on.”
Many Republican lawmakers have been annoyed, to say the least, by the administration’s response thus far, including veteran members of the GOP who don’t like the administration’s plan to raid unused Ebola funds.
“Ebola long term is a real threat. And it's a much more dangerous disease.”
“Ebola long term is a real threat. And it's a much more dangerous disease, from everything we know, than coronavirus is. The death rates are much higher. I don't think we should disrupt [that funding],” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, told VICE News outside the coronavirus hearing. “We need emergency funds now [for coronavirus]. Let’s vote on the emergency funds, the same way we would with any other natural disaster.”
The hearing came another related one earlier in the week where Chad Wolf, the acting head of DHS, which has been tasked with coordinating the federal response to the virus, faced a rare public rebuke from Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana). After Wolf told the senator he didn’t know how many Americans coming back from cruise ships have the virus, the senator grew indignant.
“You’re head of Homeland Security, and your job is to keep us safe,” said Kennedy, usually a dependable ally for all things Trump. “Don’t you think you ought to check on that, as the head of Homeland Security?”
The mythology the Trump White House is peddling around coronavirus is now being repeated by some of the president’s top Republican allies on Capitol Hill. After all, they now have senior officials to attribute deeply flawed talking points to, like HHS Secretary Azar, who spent Tuesday testifying in the Senate and Wednesday in the House.
“From what he's telling us, the administration is on top of this,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) told reporters in the hall outside the hearing room. “We’re behind the eight ball because China bungled this. The bottom line is that, in this country, public health services is run very well. It's run very professionally.”
Harris is one of just a handful of doctors in Congress. Even though many lawmakers say the
White House should have sent Congress an emergency funding request three weeks ago, Harris is fully behind the administration’s response.
“Should Americans be concerned? Of course they should. But right now, to be honest with you, they should be more concerned about the flu virus,” Harris said.
With all these competing claims swirling out of the president and his powerful minions, many lawmakers are bracing for impact. “It’s not just that they need to do more; they need to be serious about coordinating their efforts,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters. “There's just no seriousness in this administration about a disease that is going to be a global pandemic, that is going to shave five to 10 points off of the global markets. I think that's really frightening.”
This storm has been brewing for some time. Back in 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention slashed its overseas global pandemic prevention operations by 80 percent, which brought the number of countries where America was actively working to prevent viruses like this from 49 to a mere 10 countries. Under Trump, America’s $30 million Complex Crisis Fund was axed, along with $15 billion in federal health spending.
“I am not comforted by what we heard today,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) told VICE News after leaving the Azar hearing. “I don't know how you build a public health infrastructure that protects the health and security of Americans, working backwards. And that's what this administration is trying to do.”
Follow Matt Laslo on Twitter at @mattlaslo
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (R), U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) and CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, holds a news conference with members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House on February 26, 2020. (Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)