President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday afternoon, allowing the government to marshal more resources to cities and states struggling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“I am officially declaring a national emergency. Two very big words,” Trump said as he was flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and other health officials. “No resource will be spared, nothing whatsoever.”
But Trump refused to take responsibility for major deficiencies in the country’s coronavirus testing system—which has been deemed a “failure” by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who also stood beside Trump on Friday.
“I don’t take any responsibility at all,” he insisted.
Trump also didn’t miss an opportunity to blast former President Barack Obama, calling his response to swine flu a “very big failure.”
Asked by a reporter why his administration disbanded the White House office on pandemics, Trump responded, “That’s a nasty question... I didn’t do it. We have a group of people [in the administration].”
Trump’s emergency announcement on Friday allows him to invoke the Stafford Act, which will free up billions of dollars in disaster relief aid to help states and municipalities fight the pandemic. It also allows states to request a 75 percent cost-share with the federal government for expenses like medical tests, supplies, and emergency staff, according to a letter Democrats sent the president earlier this week.
Trump pledged $50 billion in federal aid for states and localities and said he would be waiving some hospital regulations so they can treat more patients.
Several new initiatives will be rolled out, including drive-through testing in critical locations and partnerships with private companies to expand testing capacity, Trump said. He added that interest on federal student loans would be waived to help with the economic impact of the disease.
The president also said Google was developing a web portal to help inform people where they can get mobile testing for COVID-19.
“Google is going to develop a website, it’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past,” he said.
In a bizarre move, Dr. Deborah Birx, a former medical researcher during the HIV/AIDS crisis who was tapped to lead the federal government response to coronavirus, compared the Trump administration’s response to the heavily-criticized response to the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the '80s.
“In less than two weeks together, we have developed a solution that we believe will meet the future testing needs of Americans,” she said. “I understand how difficult this has been. I was part of the HIV/AIDS response in the '80s. We knew from first finding cases in 1981, it took us to almost 1985 to have a test [and] another 11 years to have effective therapy. It’s because of the lessons learned from that we were able to mobilize and bring those individuals that were key to the HIV response to this response.”
Trump offered confusing advice on whether people should self-quarantine after coming into contact with infected individuals, as per CDC advice. He had previously declined to get tested or self-quarantine after coming into contact with a Brazilian government official who later tested positive for COVID-19.
He said on Friday he didn’t have any symptoms so hadn’t self-quarantined but was “most likely” going to be tested at some point. “We’re working out a schedule,” he added.
He urged Americans not to get tested if they aren’t exhibiting symptoms.
“I think they have to listen to their doctors, and I don’t think they should be jumping [to get the test if they don’t need],” he said.
At least 1,323 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. and at least 38 people have died, according to the Associated Press’ latest figures.
Multiple state governors had already declared emergency status, closed down schools, and canceled public events.
Trump’s announcement was a mid-Friday declaration that had been coming for days, if not weeks. And it was done in the shadow of a torrent of high-profile blunders by the president and his policymakers as they struggle to grapple with the exploding public health crisis.
On Wednesday night, Trump delivered an Oval Office address announcing the launch of new policy directives, but it only caused increased uneasiness in the financial markets, more panic at home and overseas, and yet another layer of utter internal confusion among senior officials throughout his administration.
During the televised Wednesday speech at the White House, Trump announced he was banning travel from Europe to the United States, yet didn’t bother to get into details of how that plan would be implemented or if American residents or citizens could still travel to those countries or come home. Trump said health insurance companies “agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments,” a statement that came as a shock to health insurers who insisted they’d done no such thing.
And he claimed that new travel prohibitions would “not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo,” a market-shaking assertion that administration officials almost immediately had to correct, telling reporters late into the night that the policy wouldn’t actually apply to trade and goods outright.
All in all, it was a group effort at incompetence, with the blame being laid at the feet of not just the president, but of top officials and White House aides such as Stephen Miller and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. But that third screw-up, which announced an imaginary policy that would have inevitably caused economic devastation, was the result of the president’s own sloppy reading and poor recitation.
In the prepared script fed into the teleprompter from which he read, it stated that the new restrictions would “not” apply to the trade and cargo, whereas Trump erroneously added in his own “not only,” a source with knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast earlier this week.
This effectively created a double-negative on live TV that further muddled what exactly the White House’s policies were during a pandemic. It was a brief fumble that Trump’s own officials worked well into Thursday cleaning up, during time they say they wanted to devote to other important, potentially life-or-death matters at hand.
“We are wasting time playing mop-up on something we absolutely should not have to do right now,” said one senior Trump administration official working on the coronavirus comms operation. “It goes without say[ing] that we aren’t allowed to admit that any of it is the fault of the president.”
But by Friday afternoon, some of Trump’s most public-facing lieutenants went before the cameras to try to convince the American people that their boss had everything in the bag, and that he was worthy of the utmost flattery.
“This day should be an inspiration to every American,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the White House Rose Garden event on Friday. He went on to label Trump’s recent handling of the crisis as “decisive action,” a term that, according to three administration officials, various allies, and members of Trump’s team have actively been encouraged to repeatedly use as they defend the president in public.