President Donald Trump has tapped Vice President Mike Pence to take over as leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force.
The announcement came after Trump and his administration spent days receiving harsh criticism from Capitol Hill for its mixed messages about the threat of coronavirus and what the government was doing to prepare.
On Wednesday night, Trump’s message was very clear: “Exactly right now,” he said, Pence will start leading the White House response to the coronavirus. “Mike will report back to me, but he’s got a certain talent for this,” Trump said.
The president’s decision to put Pence in charge was seen by some as further evidence that he is not taking the threat of coronavirus seriously.
Over the decades, Pence has amassed a public record that his critics have often bashed as anti-science. On matters of public health, for instance, he has made wild claims in the past.
“Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, two out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking-related illness and nine out of 10 smokers do not contract lung cancer,” Pence said in 2000. Additionally, Pence has advocated teaching creationism in American public schools and, as governor of Indiana, had an HIV outbreak explode on his watch because he moved too slowly on approving needle exchanges.
The president’s decision to entrust Pence with handling an outbreak that experts say is approaching pandemic levels comes after Trump spent much of the week frantically trying to quell fears that members of his team were at odds with each other, fearful that the narrative of dysfunction could complicate his re-election bid.
The New York Times first reported Wednesday that the president was considering tapping a coronavirus czar to streamline the interagency process. But senior officials waved off any notion that someone would step in to take the lead in place of Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Immediately after Trump’s Wednesday night announcement, Azar was reportedly overheard saying the press was “misunderstanding” Pence’s role and stressing that he was “still the chairman of the task force.” But he did also reportedly say he was “delighted” with Pence’s appointment.
The former Indiana governor offered a brief statement on his credentials but nothing else.
“As a former governor from a state where the first MERS case emerged in 2014, I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of partnership of state and local governments…. on the potential threats of dangerous diseases,” Pence said.
Trump said he would also bring on an official from the State Department to help the task force coordinate on the virus but did not mention the person’s name.
The president’s announcement that he is bringing on new members of the task force underscores the extent to which the White House is trying to adjust its messaging after days of confusion about how seriously to take the coronavirus threat. Still, though, despite briefings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the virus would eventually spread throughout the country, Trump, with a representative of that agency beside him, pushed back on that claim. “I don’t think it is inevitable,” he said. “Probable? Maybe.”
Reporters pushed him a second time. He doubled down. “There’s a chance to get worse… but nothing is inevitable,” he said.
Trump went on to blame the Democratic debate for the stock market’s downward spiral and complained that the Democrats were treating him unfairly—that he in fact had been out in front on combating the virus by banning flights to China.
As justification, Trump at one point during the beginning of the press conference held up a Johns Hopkins study that stated the U.S. was the country most prepared to handle the coronavirus.
Advisers to Trump have for weeks tried to gather data about how quickly the virus spreads, how it can be stopped, and how to contain an outbreak in the future. But those efforts have largely remained behind closed doors, leaving the public wondering what—if anything—the administration has been doing to address the outbreak. Meanwhile, as cases doubled, then tripled, across the globe, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have increasingly called out top administration officials to be more transparent and to declassify their briefings, accusing them of mixed messaging on the severity of the virus.
The situation came to a head Wednesday morning when Azar was grilled by lawmakers about the adequacy and breadth of the administration’s response. Azar defended the effort and beat off suggestions that he would soon be replaced with a formal czar for coordinating the coronavirus response.
Harsh criticism from Capitol Hill over the administration’s handling of the virus—dubbed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as “towering and dangerous incompetence”—prompted panic in the White House early this week that the administration was losing its grip on the narrative. The fear, according to two senior administration officials, was that not only lawmakers but the general public were becoming increasingly wary of the discrepancy between the president’s statements and those of the health officials leading the task force.
Trump and his closest advisers tried to downplay fears about the virus in an attempt to correct the stock market, which fell more than 1,900 points over Monday and Tuesday, according to two senior administration officials. White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow appeared Tuesday on CNBC, urging people to remain calm and insisting that the virus was contained to an “airtight” degree. At the same time, though, CDC officials were pushing a different story: The coronavirus was contained but would soon spread more widely in the U.S.
According to multiple doctors and administrators at three hospitals across the country, the need for more equipment—such as masks, gowns, and gloves—has grown more dire by the day. At Bellevue Hospital in New York City, one of the country’s only designated coronavirus centers, the stockpile of masks dipped by hundreds over the course of a day when news broke in January that the virus had landed in the U.S. They’ve since been replenished, but there are fears that the supply could dwindle again.
While top health agencies have warned that it is merely a matter of time before the virus spreads in the United States, Trump has seemed focused on controlling the narrative to prevent a financial crisis from getting in the way of his re-election campaign.
Over the past three weeks, Trump has, on multiple occasions, asked administration officials about the different effects the spread of coronavirus could have on the world and U.S. economies, according to two people present for the conversations.
“He referenced [concerns about] the stock market at least two times,” said one of these sources, recalling a discussion that occurred roughly two weeks ago.
A third source who spoke to Trump in the past few weeks said that the president mused about how his enemies could use pandemic fears against him. “Remember recession, recession, recession?” Trump said, the source recalled, referencing the media and cable news coverage late last year about the growing recession fears in the country.
Trump has privately said many times that his perceived adversaries in the press would “love it” if a recession occurred on his watch, thus crippling his chances at re-election, those close to the president say. Reached for comment Wednesday afternoon, the president’s White House comms apparatus made a point of sticking it to those alleged foes in the media.
“Unfortunately what we are seeing is a political effort by the Left and some in the media to distract and disturb the American people with fearful rhetoric and palace intrigue,” White House spokesman Judd Deere wrote in a statement. “The United States economy is the strongest in the world thanks to the leadership and policies of President Trump. The virus remains low risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this administration since the first of the year.”