Erin Banco, Asawin Suebsaeng
The Daily Beast
President Donald Trump is frantically trying to quell criticism that he and his team were caught off guard by the growing number of coronavirus cases worldwide, fearful that a narrative of dysfunction could complicate his reelection bid.
Advisers to President Trump have for weeks tried to gather data about how quickly the virus spreads, how it can be stopped, and how to contain an outbreak in the future. But those efforts have largely remained behind closed doors, leaving the public wondering what—if anything—the administration has been doing to address the outbreak. Meanwhile, as cases doubled, then tripled, across the globe, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have increasingly called out top administration officials to be more transparent and to declassify their briefings, accusing them of mixed messaging on the severity of the virus.
The situation came to a head Wednesday morning when Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was grilled by lawmakers about the adequacy and breadth of the administration’s response. Azar, defended the effort and beat off suggestions that he would soon be replaced with a formal czar for coordinating the coronavirus response. Officials say that they don’t believe such an appointment will happen–despite reports to the contrary—citing the president’s support for the secretary both publicly and privately.
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Nevertheless, harsh criticism from Capitol Hill over the administration’s handling of the virus—dubbed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer (D-NY) as “towering and dangerous incompetence”—prompted panic in the halls of the White House early this week that the administration was losing grip on the narrative. The fear, according to two senior administration officials, was that not only lawmakers but the general public were becoming increasingly wary of the discrepancy between the president’s statements and those of the health officials leading the task force.
Trump and his closest advisers tried to downplay fears about the virus in an attempt to correct the market, which fell more than 1,900 points over Monday and Tuesday, according to two senior administration officials. White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow appeared on CNBC Tuesday, urging people to remain calm and insisting that the virus was contained to an “airtight” degree. At the same time, though, officials of the Centers for Disease Control, were pushing a different story: The coronavirus was contained but would soon spread more widely in the U.S.
Several senior officials told The Daily Beast that the State Department was in the midst of drafting new travel advisories for several countries, including Japan. The department issued an advisory for Mongolia Wednesday morning, which will allow for the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees from the country.
With the varying lines of messaging, the administration attempted to correct course—holding press calls and conferences—in an effort to assuage any concern that members of his team were behind the ball or at odds with one another. According to two national security officials, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien along with his deputy Matt Pottinger are coordinating the interagency efforts on the task force, additionally relying on several other NSC officials from the weapons of mass destruction directorate to draft ideas for prevention and containment.
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The scramble to get out in front of the story shows the degree to which Trump administration officials fear domestic political blowback for a response that has been increasingly questioned for its lack of clarity. While the president increasingly focused on downplaying fears about the virus spreading to fend off more economic repercussions, scientists and academics studying the virus have begun warning in more dire terms about the human cost of the virus spreading and the need to stockpile resources for the future.
As Trump tries to reassure the public that the virus—and the markets—are under control, the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services are aggressively advocating that lawmakers on Capitol Hill approve more funding for preventative measures. The administration requested additional funds to help handle the coronavirus response and prevention.
But Democrats in Congress have criticized the request as woefully inadequate as medical and political officials in some of their home states have already begun warning that they are, potentially, dramatically shorthanded for the coming pandemic. On Wednesday morning, Schumer requested $8.5 billion in coronavirus funding—more than three times the funding requested by Team Trump.
According to multiple doctors and administrators at three hospitals across the country, the need for more equipment—such as masks, gowns and gloves—has grown more dire by the day. At Bellevue Hospital in New York City, one of the country’s only designated coronavirus centers, the stockpile of masks dipped by hundreds over the course of a day when news broke in January that the virus had landed in the U.S. They’ve since been replenished but there are fears that the supply could dwindle again.
In New Jersey, an official with Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said the guidance from the federal government was “coming in fast and furious”, particularly over the last few days. “It is the nature of the outbreak,” the official said, who said the federal government had given the New Jersey team guidance on quarantining individuals in hotels or state facilities if needed. But there was no definitive promises to date for resources and only vague assessments as to how big the administration expected the pandemic to get.
“It is a complete guess,” the official conceded, when asked just how much money they would need.
Complicating matters is the seemingly disjointed approach that the White House has taken to addressing the evolving crisis. While top health agencies warned that it was merely a matter of time before it spread in the United States, President Trump seemed focused on controlling the narrative to prevent a financial crisis.
Over the past three weeks, Trump has, on multiple occasions, asked administration officials about the different effects the spread of coronavirus could have on the world and U.S. economies, according to two people present for the conversations.
“He referenced [concerns about] the stock market at least two times,” said one of these sources, recalling a discussion that occurred roughly two weeks ago.
A third source who spoke to Trump in the past few weeks said that the president mused about how his enemies could use pandemic fears against him. “Remember recession, recession, recession?” Trump said, the source recalled, referencing the media and cable news coverage late last year about the growing recession fears in the country.
Trump has privately said many times that his perceived adversaries in the press would “love it” if a recession occurred on his watch, thus crippling his chances at reelection, those close to the president say. Reached for comment Wednesday afternoon, the president’s White House comms apparatus made a point of sticking it to those alleged foes in the media.
“Unfortunately what we are seeing is a political effort by the Left and some in the media to distract and disturb the American people with fearful rhetoric and palace intrigue,” White House spokesman Judd Deere wrote in a statement. “The United States economy is the strongest in the world thanks to the leadership and policies of President Trump. The virus remains low risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this administration since the first of the year.”