President Donald Trump on Friday deflected blame for his administration’s lagging ability to test Americans for the coronavirus outbreak, insisting instead — without offering evidence — that fault lies with his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“I don't take responsibility at all,” Trump said defiantly, pointing to an unspecified “set of circumstances” and “rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”
The remarks from the president came in response to questions at a Friday press conference about the lack of widespread access to testing, an aspect of his administration's coronavirus response that has been the subject of widespread, steady criticism. Administration officials told lawmakers yesterday that the U.S. tested about 11,000 people during the first seven weeks of the outbreak — roughly as many as South Korea is testing each day.
And Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee on Thursday that “the system is not really geared to what we need right now” in and called the testing system “a failing.”
But Trump, who spent weeks downplaying coronavirus before declaring it a national emergency on Friday, argued that the health care system was not designed for an outbreak on the scale of coronavirus, “with the kind of numbers that we are talking about.”
The president kept his criticism lighter and more forward-looking at first, declaring that his administration is “leaving a very indelible print in the future in case something like this happens again.”
“That's not the fault of anybody — and frankly the old system worked very well for smaller numbers, much smaller numbers but not for these kind of numbers,” he added.
But then Fauci stepped up to the mic to clarify his position, arguing that the CDC’s testing system, “for what it was designed for, it worked very well,” and maintaining that an “embrace” of the private sector was necessary for testing at the kind of scale needed for the fast-spreading coronavirus.
Then, Trump began pointing fingers.
“If you go back — please, if you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this. they didn't do testing like this,” he interjected, referencing the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that sickened more than 60 million people between April 2009 and 2010. Trump asserted that the Obama administration “didn’t do testing” and that when “they started thinking about testing,” it was “far too late.”
He reiterated a claim made on Twitter earlier in the day, calling the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu outbreak “a very big failure,” though the H1N1's fatality rate of .02 percent is much lower than the lowest fatality estimates for the coronavirus thus far.
Trump later got testy with another reporter who pressed him on whether he bore any responsibility for the surge in cases, noting that he’d disbanded the White House’s pandemic office.
Trump told the reporter, PBS NewsHour's Yamiche Alcindor — with whom he's butted heads with in the past — that her inquiry was a “nasty question.”
After noting that his administration had quickly acted to restrict travel from China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, the president said he personally was not responsible for dissolving the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which had been part of the National Security Council until his administration disbanded it and rolled its officials into another office.
“And when you say me, I didn't do it. We have a group of people. I could ask — perhaps in my administration — but I could perhaps ask Tony about that because I don't know anything about it.” Trump said. “You say we did that. I don't know anything about it.”
He continued: “I don't know, CDC, perhaps they do that — let people go. You used to be with a different newspaper than you are now. You know, things like that happen.”
Trump then began to move on, before returning to defend his administration’s response.
“We are doing a great job,” he insisted, referencing the health officials and business executives gathered behind him. “Let me tell you, these professionals behind me and these great incredible doctors and business people — the best in the world — and I can say that whether it's retailers or labs or anything you want to say. These are the best in the world.”
He also pointed to the number of fatalities in the U.S. attributed to the virus, which has hit 40 in the several weeks since the first reported case in the U.S., and is significantly lower than other countries hit hardest by the disease.
“Compare that with other countries that are many, many times that amount,” Trump said. “One of the reasons we have 40 and others have and, again, that number is going up just so you understand.”
Trump’s criticism of the Obama administration on Friday wasn’t limited to its response to its own pandemic.
At another point in the press conference, Trump appeared to work in a shot at healthcare.gov, the website created by the Obama administration for the rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges that was infamously marred by connectivity issues almost instantly when it debuted.
Announcing that Google had offered to assist the White House in the creation of a website to better help Americans determine whether they needed to be tested for coronavirus and where to get tested if so, Trump quipped that the tech “is helping to develop a website that will be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past.”