WASHINGTON — The White House moved on Thursday to tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearances with the office of Vice President Mike Pence, according to several officials familiar with the new approach.
But on a day that the White House sought to display a more disciplined strategy to the administration’s communications about the virus, Trump used an evening event honoring Black History Month to rail against the news media, claiming it is overstating the threat, and to congratulate himself for keeping the number of cases low.
“I think it’s an incredible achievement what our country’s done,” Trump said, noting that he had moved quickly to ban travel from China after the emergence of the virus. Even though a total of 60 people infected with the coronavirus are in the United States, he ignored all but the 15 who did not initially contract it overseas.
“Fifteen people is almost, I would say, a miracle,” the president bragged.
The comments came just a few hours after Pence convened a meeting of the coronavirus task force composed of some of the nation’s top public health officials. The vice president made it clear that they would report to him.
“I’m leading the task force,” Pence told reporters at the Department of Health and Human Services, even as he promised to rely on the guidance of experts.
Trump announced Wednesday evening that Pence would coordinate the government’s response to the public health threat while playing down the immediate danger from the virus that is spreading rapidly across the globe.
Officials insist Pence’s goal is not to control what experts and other officials say, but to make sure their efforts are coordinated, after days of confusion with various administration officials making contradictory statements on television.
But the attempt to demonstrate a unified administration voice was undercut early in the day when Pence said that he had selected Dr. Deborah Birx, the director of the U.S. effort to combat HIV and AIDS, to serve as the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House, enlisting an experienced scientist and physician to address the potential spread of the virus.
The announcements of the roles of the vice president and Birx were intended to show that Trump and those around him were taking seriously the potential threat to the health of Americans. Aides said the president wanted governors and members of Congress to have a single point person to communicate with, eliminating any jockeying for power in a decentralized situation.
But Birx is now the third person to have been designated as the administration’s primary coronavirus official, along with Pence and Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services.
Trump said Wednesday that “Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me.” Pence said it would be Birx. Azar, for his part, remains the chairman of the government’s coronavirus task force.
The vice president’s move to control the messaging about coronavirus appeared to be aimed at preventing the kind of conflicting statements that have plagued the administration’s response.
The latest instance occurred Thursday evening, when the president said that the virus could get worse or better in the days and weeks ahead but that nobody knows, contradicting Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
At the meeting with Pence on Thursday, Fauci described the seriousness of the public health threat facing Americans, saying that “this virus has adapted extremely well to human species” and noting that it appeared to have a higher mortality rate than influenza.
“We are dealing with a serious virus,” Fauci said.
Fauci has told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.
The new White House approach came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged Thursday that a California woman with coronavirus was made to wait days before she was tested for an infection because of the agency’s restrictive criteria.
And despite Trump’s efforts to calm jittery investors, stock markets plunged again Thursday. The S&P 500 fell 4.4%, the worst single-day slide for the market since August 2011 and leaving it 10% lower than it was a week earlier.
The president’s decision to appoint Pence to lead the coronavirus response came after several days in which his aides grappled with whether to name a “coronavirus czar.”
Trump said on Wednesday that he was pleased with Azar’s performance, calling the team that he has led “totally brilliant.” But White House aides, led by Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, had debated for days whether the administration needed a point person to be the face of the response.
The decision to put Pence in charge was made Wednesday after the president told some people that the vice president did not “have anything else to do,” according to people familiar with Trump’s comments.
Birx has spent more than three decades working on HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research and global health, according to the White House, which said in a statement that she would “bring her infectious disease, immunologic, vaccine research and interagency coordinating capacity to this position.”
The president’s selection of Pence — and the decision to name Birx as the coordinator for the response — further erodes Azar’s traditional role as the nation’s top health official in charge of directing the government’s response to a medical crisis. Trump has told people that he considers Azar to be too “alarmist” about the virus.
Azar denied reports that he had not been consulted about the decision to bring in Pence before the president’s announcement Wednesday evening. He told lawmakers Thursday during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing that when he was informed of Pence’s selection, “I said, quote, ‘that’s genius.’”
Officials also announced that Pence was expanding the coronavirus task force to include “key administration officials,” including Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, as well as the president’s top two economic advisers, Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary. The task force is made up of more than a dozen top administration officials and Cabinet secretaries.
The decision to bring in Pence was not without controversy.
Critics of the vice president pointed to Pence’s record on public health when he was the governor of Indiana as evidence that he was not the right person to lead the government’s response to a health crisis. Democrats noted that Pence was blamed for aggravating a severe AIDS outbreak among intravenous drug users when he opposed calls for a clean needle exchange program on the grounds it would encourage more drug use.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that she had told Pence directly that she questioned his new role given that as governor, he had “slashed” the public health budget in Indiana.
“I spoke with the vice president this morning, made some of these concerns known to him,” she said. “We have always had a very candid relationship, and I expressed to him the concern that I had of his being in this position.”