Vice President Mike Pence defended President Donald Trump’s drive to hold rallies with sparse public health measures Friday, even as officials and health experts are sounding alarm bells that a resurgent coronavirus is causing problems in states across the country.
"Well, the freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States and we have an election coming up this fall,” Pence said when asked how the administration could justify the events. “And President Trump and I believe that taking proper steps, we've created screening at recent events and giving people the very best counsel that we had. We still want to give people the freedom to participate in the political process and we respect that."
It was the first coronavirus task force briefing in almost two months, and Pence spent much of it trying to distance the nation’s present public health struggles from the situation that led the nation to shutdown in the first place, saying, “It’s different than two months ago.”
“We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” Pence said, even as data shows the nation’s confirmed cases spiking.
On stage at the Department of Health and Human Services Friday, Pence was the only official not to wear a mask while others spoke.
Pence did note that cases were rising in the last week “throughout the South” and that task force officials would be heading to hotspots including Texas, Arizona, and Florida in the coming days “to get a ground report.” He also pointed to 16 states with “rising cases and rising percentages” as a concern while 34 states are “experiencing a measure of stability.”
But Pence fretted that there may be a tendency for the public to believe that the nation is back to the place it was "two months ago."
“That we're in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people,” Pence said. “The reality is, we're in a much better place.”
At the same time, the president’s focus on the virus seems to have waned from the amount of attention he gave it in March and April. Even then, he was pushing the country to quickly reopen and threatening to override governors’ decisions, despite lacking the authority to make such a move.
Now, those reopenings are causing anxiety in some states. In Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a key Trump ally, is facing recent concerns like those from the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that “Florida has all the makings of the next large epicenter.” As cases climbed in his state, DeSantis lamented “we are where we are,” this week, telling reporters he wasn’t pushing the state to enter the next phase of its reopening.
The situation in the state grew even more troubling Friday, according to The Miami Herald, as the state smashed its single-day record set earlier this week for new cases with a count of close to 9,000 testing positive. The previous high, according to the newspaper, came Wednesday when 5,508 new COVID-19 cases marked a new one-day record in the state.
And in Texas the situation has grown worrying enough that the state’s Republican governor is pausing the state’s reopening push, citing rises in hospitalizations from COVID-19 and new cases. On Friday, he rolled back even further by imposing an executive order for bars to close down.
The comments from Pence and others came Friday at the first briefing held by the White House coronavirus task force team in close to two months as the death toll and infection rates continue to rise across the country. The lengthy briefing hiatus started shortly after the president used one of them to float bizarre and dangerous ideas about possible coronavirus treatments, like injecting disinfectants.
At other times, they often spiraled into lengthy diatribes from the president as he targeted critics, lashed out at reporters, and championed his own administration’s response to the pandemic.
Public health concerns didn’t stop the president from campaigning in Tulsa, Oklahoma last weekend, where he made a strange comment about telling his “people” to slow down testing. He then headed to Arizona for a Students for Trump rally earlier this week despite objections from the mayor of Phoenix and the state being a virus hotspot.
At the end of the briefing, a reporter pressed Pence and the administration for the approach of "saying do as we say, not as we do," and the campaign's ignoring resistance from local officials over events.
Pence dodged the question and again returned to the argument about freedom of speech. "And even in a health crisis, the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights."