WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s decision to put Mike Pence in charge of the administration’s coronavirus response will test the vice president’s ability to manage a rapidly growing crisis as stock prices plunge and critics charge the administration isn’t doing enough.
As the Trump administration staffs up and prepares for a potentially broader coronavirus outbreak, one challenge that awaits Pence will be coordinating a response for a president who is prone to second-guessing the advice of experts and has proposed deep cuts to key agencies in charge of public health.
During a news conference Wednesday to announce Pence’s appointment, Trump contradicted a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the spread of the virus in the United States is inevitable.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Trump said. “I think that we’re doing a really good job in terms of maintaining borders” and making sure people coming in the country are checked.
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Trump’s decision to put Pence in charge is a good sign of how the administration is prioritizing its response, said Ned Price, who served as spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama administration during its response to the Ebola outbreak.
But having Pence coordinate the effort is “not an appropriate substitute” for someone who could devote their full attention to the issue, such as Ebola “czar” Ronald Klain had been appointed to do for the Obama administration, Price said.
“He still has all of his official duties to carry out, and unless he’s going to take a sabbatical from his role as the vice president, I think it’s it’s substituting one problem for another,” Price said, noting Pence had spoken at the Conservative Political Action Conference on the same day as his first meeting with the coronavirus response task force
Trump signaled confidence in Pence’s ability to coordinate the administration’s response when he announced the appointment Wednesday.
“He’s got a certain talent for this,” Trump said as Pence stood at his side, along with officials from the CDC and other agencies.
Some question whether Pence is the right choice, arguing that a health care professional would be better positioned to monitor and react to a virus that already has spawned more than 80,000 cases around the world, including 60 in the U.S.
Top health officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases Director Anthony Fauci are “highly qualified” to handle the crisis, said John Holdren, who was the senior science and technology adviser to President Barack Obama.
“I just have to wonder whether President Trump will ever be listening,” Holdren said.
Asha George, who heads a bipartisan group of former government officials who analyze the U.S.’s capacity to defend against biological threats, applauded Trump’s decision to put Pence in charge of the coronavirus response.
Multiple agencies are involved in such an effort, which can make a coordinated response difficult, said George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.
“You need somebody with enough power and authority to direct everybody and make sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
The vice president “carries a lot of weight and is pretty much the only person short of the president who can get this sort of thing done, especially in the midst of a response, as we are now,” she said.
Pence announced Thursday that he has tapped Debbie Birx, who is in charge of U.S. efforts to fight HIV and AIDS, to help manage the response to the coronavirus threat. The administration also added three new members to its coronavrius task force: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.
Pence’s selection of Birx could ease concerns of some lawmakers who called for the Trump administration to put someone with expertise in charge of the federal response.
“Debbie Birx is a highly qualified public health expert who is kind of battle tested,” said Tom Frieden, who served as director of the CDC and commissioner of the New York City Health Department. “She’s a veteran and has extensive experience with the CDC and other parts of the U.S. government. I think that’s a good choice.”
Trump’s budgets have routinely proposed to cut funding for the agencies like the CDC and the NIH that are now on the front lines of the fight against the virus.
At the news briefing Wednesday, Trump said the coronavirus threat did not make him question those previously proposed cuts.
“We know all the people. We know all the good people,” Trump said, adding, “we can get them back very quickly” if staff are cut.
Price told USA TODAY top officials on the National Security Council who were tasked with biodefense readiness had been sacked or departed the administration, with their positions since unfilled.
“There’s not a point person on the NSC really responsible for these issues,” he said. “President Trump dismissed the senior director and his team responsible for pandemics and preparedness.”
George said those cuts and recent efforts by the administration to purge employees whom it considers disloyal to the president could make it more challenging to battle the coronavirus.
“I’m sure people are concerned,” she said. “They are worried about their jobs. They have seen other people come and go based on their performance. It’s a tough challenge for anyone there. … I think it adds additional stress.”
Juliette Kayyem, who had served as the Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, helping coordinate the response to the H1N1 outbreak, said she was concerned by the number of acting officials rather than appointed officials.
Kayyem called DHS’s current state “gutted out,” with “acting (officials) in almost every major position.”
She pointed to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf’s rocky testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee as “reflective of an agency that is ill-prepared to provide the states and localities that are going to be on the front line with the information, standards, and policies that are going to have to be directed.”
Under questioning from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., Wolf appeared not to know some basic statistics about the virus, misstating its fatality rate and not knowing how many cases had come from cruise ships.
“You’re supposed to keep us safe. And the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus. And I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy told Wolf.
What Kayyem also saw as a breakdown in the response process were some of the political interventions of lawmakers in the response to the virus.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., had called Trump to ask him and successfully asked him not to quarantine virus patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Alabama, something Kayyem said should not have happened.
“A senator doesn’t have operational control over what a state or local jurisdiction does,” she said. “But I think the fact that the President was responsive is just proof that all these mechanisms (for intergovernmental cooperation) have fallen apart.”