White House officials and President Donald Trump loyalists tried on Sunday to walk back remarks he made over the weekend in which he told rally-goers that he had asked officials to slow COVID-19 testing so as to decrease the number of confirmed cases in the U.S.
“He was obviously kidding,” one White House official told The Daily Beast. Peter Navarro, senior adviser to Trump, told CNN on Sunday that the president’s words were “tongue-in-cheek” and not meant to be taken seriously.
But two officials working on the coronavirus response within the Trump administration, as well as state officials and experts in emergency response, told The Daily Beast that they did not take the president’s remarks lightly. Whether facetious or not, they argued, the casual indifference Trump displayed towards testing at his Tulsa rally only reaffirmed that his administration was not prepared when the pandemic response hit—and may still not be.
“I always feared this was what was happening,” said one state health official who coordinates with the federal government on testing. “But his speech last night really made it seem like maybe this is the reason why they were slow to get us the resources we needed to do the testing.”
And two administration officials, both of whom have worked alongside the president’s task force, said Trump’s speech Saturday reignited longstanding fears among some working on his coronavirus response that the administration may have attempted to find ways to deflate the U.S. case count.
For more than a month, state and local officials called on the federal government to help with testing resources so they could better understand the scale of the virus outbreak in their communities. The testing plan put in place by Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner had fallen short of expectations and governors called out the administration for failing to quickly create a system whereby states could procure test kits and administer them to residents with symptoms. Some municipalities were left waiting so long for help that local officials were forced to settle for contracts with local labs with limited testing capacity. While testing numbers have ramped up in recent weeks and months, some officials say it’s too late.
And while Trump’s remarks raise questions about whether the administration held off—deliberately or through negligence—on implementing testing plans, they also underscore the degree to which the president is comfortable making light of a virus that has killed more than 120,000 people in the U.S.
Current and former officials say the White House’s insistence that the president was just joking is difficult to believe in part because Trump has made similar comments in the past.
“The quote last night was the natural progression of what he’s been saying publicly for a while: If you don’t test then there’s not a problem,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “You don’t have to search very hard to know Trump has been a testing skeptic and last night he just said the quiet part out loud.”
A senior Trump administration health official told The Daily Beast that while Trump’s statements don’t necessarily reflect reality inside the administration, the president’s thinking on testing—that more tests would mean bring more scrutiny— is well-known among those working on the government’s COVID-19 response.
“Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in our country the President has ignored experts, denied facts, and put his self-interest ahead of Americans’ lives—and here he is saying so,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), referring to the President’s Tulsa speech. Murray is the ranking member of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Labor and Pensions.
Since the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S., Trump has sought to deflect the blame for the increasing coronavirus cases and related deaths. When the first cruise ship with coronavirus patients docked in California after traveling to Japan, the president told reporters he was not responsible for the increase in case numbers because the individuals had contracted the virus elsewhere. For weeks, the administration tried to tally case numbers based on those that originated in the U.S. and those that originated overseas. And as the pandemic continued to worsen, Trump said the numbers in the U.S. were increasing because the country had scaled UP testing initiatives, even as health officials say an uptick in cases doesn’t necessarily result from an uptick in testing.
The Daily Beast previously reported that Trump and members of his coronavirus task force have pushed officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change how the agency works with states to count COVID-related deaths. The president in May privately raised suspicion about the number of fatalities in the United States and in talks with top officials, he suggested that those numbers could have been incorrectly tallied or even inflated by current methodology.
CDC officials have previously said that state health departments are still catching up on calculating the total number of cases and related deaths in the country, particularly in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
And the Trump administration seems to continue to try and shrug off the fact that several states across the south and southwestern parts of the country are experiencing significant spikes in case numbers where increased testing is not a contributing factor.
“The joke is on us,” Kayyem said. “We stayed inside weeks on weeks with the unstated social contract that it was going to give the nation time to have alternatives to social distancing. And they didn’t do it. The nationwide testing plan never panned out like they said it would.”