WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said the nation is prepared for the coronavirus during a Wednesday press conference where he announced that Vice President Mike Pence would lead the administration’s response.
“We’re very, very ready for this,” Trump said. “The risk to the American people remains very low.”
Trump said he trusted the advice from his top health officials, but he also at times appeared to contradict him. The president repeatedly said he didn’t believe it was inevitable that the virus would spread in the United States but acknowledged that it “probably” would.
Asked if he thought schools and other public institutions should prepare for the virus to attain a more widespread reach, he said he thought they should, adding that people should prepare the same way they prepare for flu season.
The president slammed congressional Democrats who have criticized his response and who have suggested that the administration’s initial request for $2.5 billion in emergency funding was inadequate.
But Trump also acknowledged that some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have suggested more money made be needed. He seemed open to that, without citing a new number he thought might be appropriate.
“If they want to do more,” he said, “we’ll do more.”
Trump, who held the rare press conference after markets closed, also fired back at criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying that she was “incompetent” and “trying to create panic.”
But the president was vague about the need to take additional immediate steps. He said he would consider travel restrictions but said the situation did not demand it now. Both Trump and Pence indicated that the White House would bring on additional staff to deal with the virus.
“At the right time we may do that,” Trump said of travel restrictions to countries such as South Korea and Italy that have experienced recent spikes in cases. “But right now it’s not the right time.”
Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared to throw cold water on Trump’s early assertion that the U.S. was getting “close” to developing a vaccine. Fauci said that it could take a year to 18 months, if testing went well, before a vaccine could be effectively applied to respond to the virus.
Trump, who suggested two weeks ago that the threat would go away once temperatures warmed in April, huddled earlier Wednesday at the White House with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to go over the administration’s strategy for dealing with the virus.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed concern that the administration isn’t doing enough to prepare for a possible U.S. outbreak of the virus that has spawned more than 80,000 cases around the world, including 59 confirmed cases in the USA.
Trump fired off a series of tweets early Wednesday in which he said health officials are doing “a great job” in addressing the global health epidemic. The day before, he described the epidemic as “very well under control in our country” despite a sharp increase in cases.
Financial markets have fallen sharply amid concerns over the global outbreak, and critics accused the president of not doing enough.
“Democrats talking point is that we are doing badly,” Trump tweeted. “If the virus disappeared tomorrow, they would say we did a really poor, and even incompetent, job. Not fair, but it is what it is.”
“The coronavirus story has changed in the past few days and led to a sharp market sell-off on Tuesday as fears of the virus spreading increased,” said Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak. “At this point, it is urgently important that the administration develop a bipartisan plan and communicate facts on this subject to the public.”
The White House requested $2.5 billion in emergency funding to deal with the outbreak, but congressional Democrats slammed the request as “woefully insufficient.”
“You reduced our ability to prevent epidemics. You proposed cuts to CDC funding. You just trusted other governments (like China) to handle this,” Schumer wrote on Twitter. “You can spin this any way you want, but it’s incompetence.”
Some Republicans condemned the administration’s response as well.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., ripped into acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf during a hearing Tuesday, arguing the administration has not provided the public with critical information about the virus.
Kennedy asked Wolf how many coronavirus cases the administration expects in the USA. Wolf didn’t know, prompting Kennedy to exclaim, “You’re the head of Homeland Security, and your job is to keep us safe. … Don’t you think you ought to check on that?”
Ken Cuccinelli, a top member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, turned to Twitter for help Monday after he had trouble calling up an online map produced by Johns Hopkins University to show the virus’ spread.
“Has the Johns Hopkins map of the coronavirus stopped working for other people, or just me?” he asked, adding that it appeared the hospital had put the map behind a paywall.
“Seems like bad timing to stop helping the world with this (previously) useful resource,” Cuccinelli wrote. “Here’s hoping it goes back up soon.”
Other Twitter users cited Cuccinelli’s tweets as an example of what they said was the administration’s inept response to the outbreak and pointed out that, as acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, he should have direct access to the same numbers through the CDC.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over health care, said the United States needs to redouble its efforts to combat the virus.
Asked if the administration’s request for $2.5 billion was enough to fight the outbreak, Alexander said, “We’ll see.”
“We’ve done a good job so far,” he said, noting the slow spread of the virus among Americans. “The problem is, it’s very aggressive, it’s spreading among other countries, and it will inevitably spread here.”
House Republicans pushed back on criticism that the administration is not prepared to combat the virus.
“We’re better prepared than anybody else. It doesn’t mean you’re going to escape through this with absolutely no impact,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
McCarthy said that if anyone is to blame for a tepid response, it’s China.
“The lack of accountability from China harms the entire world,” he said, adding that China’s resistance to releasing facts about the virus, including when it was discovered, prevented quicker action.
“The challenge here is the lack of accountability coming from China,” McCarthy said.
Contributing: Christal Hayes, Nicholas Wu