CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Donald Trump congratulated himself for protecting the public from the deadly coronavirus Wednesday, reassured Americans that there’s a “very low” risk of an outbreak in this country and handed off any future responsibility to Vice President Mike Pence and Congress.
Then, with subtle grace, the highest-ranking career official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delivered a slightly different message from the same podium in the White House briefing room: Not so fast.
“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working,” Principal Deputy Director Ann Shuchat said. “However, we do expect more cases, and this is a good time to prepare.”
Trump, speeding to catch up with his administration’s public relations response to evidence of a potential pandemic, had just taken the equivalent of a victory lap in the midst of what experts are warning could be an Iron Man race.
His news conference was noteworthy for the unusually somber tone he struck, until he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “incompetent.” He decided to surround himself with the kind of government experts he usually ridicules for political effect, and he sought to reassure the public, rather than create a sense of chaos.
He could be right that everything’s just fine. But, as Shuchat suggested, he might not be.
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“I feel so much better,” former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, deadpanned at a CNN town hall Wednesday night. “I hope he’s right that the virus doesn’t come here. … The bottom line is we are not ready for this kind of thing.”
That’s in part because Trump basically disbanded the part of his national security team that was responsible for responding to an infectious disease outbreak and in part because the administration dramatically scaled back its efforts to fight global health threats in the last couple of years. Trump’s crusade to slash the budget of the CDC has hurt morale within the agency, and a hiring freeze in the first year of his administration left 700 jobs there vacant.
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But in Trump’s estimation, there’s nothing to worry about.
“The Number 1 priority from our standpoint is the health and safety of the American people,” Trump said Wednesday. “The risk to the American people remains very low.”
He said his team is ready to handle an outbreak — and then questioned whether there was any reason to worry about that at all.
“We’re ready to adapt, and we’re ready to do what we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads,” he said. “We’re very, very ready for this.”
Trump held up a study from Johns Hopkins University that rated the United States the most prepared of the world’s countries to handle an epidemic or a pandemic. The U.S. scored 83.5 out of 100 on the index, a little bit above the U.K.’s 77.9. But the U.S. ranked 175th in health care access and 54th in exercising response plans — facts that were not included in the president’s presentation.
Democrats in Congress, including Pelosi, have said Trump hasn’t taken the threat seriously enough. Specifically, they’ve said his request for $2.5 billion in emergency funding is woefully inadequate.
Trump said Wednesday that he’d agree to the $4 billion that some Republicans on Capitol Hill want or even to as much as $8 billion.
“We’ll take it,” he said.
That left Trump telling the public that he’s got everything under control, even as scientists say the threat is greater than he suggested and members of Congress say he’s asked for too little money in the wake of the cuts he’s already made to the nation’s preparedness.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking on CNN after Bloomberg, reminded voters that he had been given responsibility for the U.S. response to the Ebola virus and said there has to be “complete unity” between scientists and the administration.
“I just hope the president gets on the same page as the scientists,” he said.
Though they’re competing for the right to take on Trump in November, Biden and Bloomberg were in agreement on that.
“‘The president is not a scientist’ is a nice way to phrase it,” Bloomberg had said just a little bit earlier.