WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Vice President Mike Pence will lead the administration’s response to the deadly coronavirus in an attempt to reassure the public amid growing concerns of a global health crisis and criticism that the United States has been slow to respond to the fast-moving outbreak.
The move came as a person in Northern California tested positive Wednesday for the virus, the first case in the United States that has no known link to foreign travel or contact with someone known to be infected – a sign the virus may be spreading in at least one location. Officials have begun tracing the contacts of the resident to find out how that person may have been infected and who else might have been exposed.
Trump made no mention of the new case Wednesday as he struck an optimistic tone about the virus.
“We’ve had tremendous success, tremendous success beyond what many people would’ve thought,” the president said during a White House news conference that followed days of mixed messages, tumbling stocks and rising death tolls abroad driven by the coronavirus. “We’re very, very ready for this.”
The president declared that the risk to America was “very low” and predicted a swift end to the outbreak.
Trump’s positive message was at odds with the statements by top members of his administration in recent days who have warned of an unpredictable virus that could spread into communities and upend Americans’ daily lives.
The president was contradicted almost in real time by some of the government experts who flanked him as he stood in the White House press briefing room.
“We could be just one or two people over the next short period of time,” Trump said of the virus’s impact in the United States.
Minutes later, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat warned Americans to prepare for the number of cases to grow.
“We can expect to see more cases in the United States,” Azar said.
“We do expect more cases,” Schuchat said.
The case confirmed Wednesday in California brought the total in the United States to 60.
As several countries around the world confirmed additional cases and higher death tolls, Trump tried to seize the reins of his administration’s public response to a crisis that has featured a daily stream of negative developments.
But his news conference quickly devolved into campaign-style attacks on Democrats, predictions of a stock market rally and self-congratulatory assessments of his handling of the crisis.
The president said he would be willing to accept more emergency funding than the $2.5 billion requested by his administration after lawmakers pushed for a more robust federal response. He also said he would consider new travel restrictions on other countries struggling to contain the outbreak, including South Korea and Italy.
“At a right time we may do that,” he said. “Right now it’s not the right time.”
He partly blamed Democrats for the drop in the stock market and attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as “incompetent” after she had made disparaging comments about his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, dismissing the traditional bipartisan approach leaders take in the midst of natural disasters and public health emergencies while criticizing her for doing the same.
The remarks were the president’s most extensive public comments yet about a crisis that threatens a main component of his reelection message – the economy. Trump administration officials have said they expect the virus to hamper economic growth this year, something that could complicate the president’s economy-focused campaign pitch.
The stock market, which Trump has followed closely in recent days, continued its sharp slump Wednesday, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling an additional 124 points. After enduring its worst two-day slide in four years on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday’s decline put the total losses this week at more than 2,000.
The slog has undermined Trump’s attempts to downplay the risk posed by the virus, which he previously dismissed as a passing problem that had not significantly affected Americans.
But in the wake of a stock market rout that eliminated more than $2 trillion in wealth, the news conference was intended to be a show of force, with several top administration officials from a “coronavirus task force” present.
The administration has received criticism for lacking a coherent message about the virus as its reach and intensity have spread.
Azar faced tough questions from lawmakers Wednesday during hearings on Capitol Hill.
“While the immediate risks to the American public remain low, there is now community transmission in a number of places, including outside of Asia, which is deeply concerning,” Azar said. “We are working closely with state and local and private-sector partners to prepare for mitigating the virus’s potential spread in the United States as we expect to see more cases here.”
Trump has made a direct connection between the virus and his political fortunes, accusing Democrats and the media of trying to harm his reelection chances by focusing on the outbreak.
Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday to accuse cable news channels of “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible.”
The president’s efforts to downplay the virus have focused on the fact that the United States has seen relatively few cases and, so far, no confirmed deaths. Trump has also contended that the virus was “very much under control” and has indicated it would be gone by April.
Multiple public health officials from the administration have contradicted that prediction. Asked if he agreed that the coronavirus would be gone by April, CDC Director Robert Redfield told Congress he didn’t.
“Prudent to assume this pathogen will be with us for some time to come,” he said Wednesday.
As the virus has spread to more than 30 countries, Trump’s “America First” doctrine has come under increasing strain. While Trump instituted travel restrictions to block travelers from China – the epicenter of the outbreak – the virus has spread rapidly in several additional countries.
“When we did the initial China ban, we were very clear: We can’t hermetically seal the U.S. off,” Azar told lawmakers.
Still, the Trump administration was considering adding new travel restrictions for South Korea, the country with the second-largest number of cases after China. South Korea reported 284 additional cases of the coronavirus Wednesday, raising the national tally to 1,261. That number is expected to rise in coming days as the country begins the mass testing of more than 200,000 members of a messianic religious movement at the center of an outbreak in the city of Daegu.
An American soldier stationed in South Korea has tested positive for coronavirus, the first service member to be infected, the military said Tuesday. The U.S. military on Wednesday restricted all nonessential travel to South Korea for service members, civilians and contractors under its authority. The CDC has advised against any nonessential travel to South Korea.
Trump, who has boasted that his travel restrictions on China were prudent, is likely to authorize new limitations on South Korea if the number of coronavirus cases there continues to increase, a senior administration official said.
South Korea has lobbied against such restrictions, pledging cooperation and heightened prevention measures to allay U.S. concerns, officials said.
The ban could extend to all foreigners traveling to the United States from South Korea, according to an official with knowledge of the deliberations. The restrictions would allow U.S. citizens to return to the United States but would require them to be quarantined for a period of time, as is the case with U.S. citizens coming to the United States from China. Thousands of U.S. service members and students live in South Korea.
Trump, who repeatedly asserted that the United States should ban flights from Africa during the 2014 Ebola crisis, is also considering travel restrictions on other countries that have seen large outbreaks of coronavirus, an official said.
The president has been reluctant to call for any significant preventive measures within the boundaries of the country, even as other nations have discouraged large gatherings or closed some schools as a precaution.
Trump indicated he would go ahead with a planned political rally Friday in South Carolina, his first since returning from India.
“Big Rally in the Great State of South Carolina on Friday,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “See you there!”
Democrats have criticized the president for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, emphasizing what they see as a key weakness for Trump in the eyes of many voters.
In a new campaign ad titled “Pandemic,” former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign described Trump’s administration as unprepared and ill-equipped to manage the country through a public-health emergency.
The administration has faced bipartisan criticism for its handling of the crisis, as lawmakers have publicly complained about the lack of consistency and clarity from senior officials involved in the response. Congressional leaders on Wednesday began putting together a large emergency spending package to deal with the outbreak, seeking to spend far more than the $2.5 billion the White House requested earlier this week.
Administration officials have sparred internally in recent days over the emergency budget request, with Azar and others seeking a much larger package and White House aides calling for a less ambitious approach, according to officials with knowledge of the dispute, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Trump, who praised Azar publicly Tuesday, has been skeptical of the secretary’s ability to handle the crisis, a senior administration official said. The president has been reluctant to oust him in part because he did not want to add to the sense of disarray, the official said.
The White House considered appointing a “czar” to oversee the government-wide response effort, a move that would essentially demote Azar from his role as the head of the coronavirus task force.
“I don’t anticipate one,” Azar told lawmakers earlier Wednesday when asked if a czar would be appointed. “This is working extremely well.”
Trump said his decision to put Pence in charge was not tantamount to appointing a czar, despite him serving in a role that serves the same purpose.
“Mike is not a czar, he’s vice president,” the president said. “I’m having them report to Mike. Mike will report to me.”
Still, at the end of the news conference, Azar walked back to the lectern to clarify that he remained the chairman of the coronavirus task force and had not been demoted. He said he was actually “delighted” to have Pence overseeing the effort.
As Azar was speaking, Trump walked out of the room.
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The Washington Post’s John Hudson, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Erica Werner, Colby Itkowitz and Lenny Bernstein contributed to this repot.