(Bloomberg) -- With financial markets in freefall Monday morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration is aggressively responding to “a very serious public health threat” posed by the coronavirus.
Azar told Fox News: “Nobody is trying to minimize this.”
Six minutes later, the president did just that. In a tweet sent as he arrived in Orlando, Florida, for a re-election fundraiser, Trump said seasonal flu deaths in the U.S. had so far outpaced those who perished from coronavirus. “Think about that!” he said.
The spread of the deadly virus is thrusting Trump’s science and health experts into the uncomfortable role of carefully -- but clearly -- contradicting him by offering warnings, grounded in science, about the risks from the disease and recommending some Americans alter their daily routines.
In the past, aides who have dared to diverge from the president too much or express concern about his bluster and bravado -- which Trump sees as leverage in high-stakes negotiations -- often are ejected from the administration.
But with the nation facing an unprecedented health scare, members of Trump’s coronavirus task force have taken on the burden of contradicting the president’s don’t-worry approach to the crisis.
Within the past week, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the virus may not just disappear when the weather gets warmer, as Trump predicted. Fauci in an NBC interview over the weekend also had much stronger advice to older and vulnerable Americans, telling them “no large crowds, no long trips and, above all, don’t get on a cruise ship.”
Even Vice President Mike Pence, one of the president’s most loyal defenders, tried to clarify Trump’s claim that the mortality was lower than 1%, saying the data was still coming in.
Trump took to the lectern Monday evening to address concerns -- less about the health risks posed by the virus than the economic impact it’s having. Making a brief appearance at a daily coronavirus task force briefing, Trump said he’s pursuing a payroll tax cut with Congress to deliver “very substantial relief” to industries hit by the outbreak.
Trump said he plans to hold another press conference on Tuesday to announce “major” economic measures.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the president’s remarks, saying “what was glaringly missing from President Trump’s press conference was how he is actually going to combat the spread of the coronavirus and keep the American people safe. It seems President Trump is more focused on the stock market than addressing this pandemic.”
On Monday, the S&P 500 sank more than 7% -- the most since the May 2010 flash crash. The index, now down 18% from its Feb. 19 all-time high, is threatening to end the record-long bull market that began 11 years ago to the day.
The tension between Trump and his public health officials has been evident from the early days of the crisis. On Feb. 25, the president told reporters traveling with him in India that the virus was “very well under control in our country” and that the U.S. was “in very good shape.”
“Let’s just say we’re fortunate so far,” Trump said. “And we think it’s going to remain that way.
But hours later, federal health officials warned that the spread of the virus was inevitable and advised businesses to arrange for employees to work from home and consider scrapping meetings and conferences.
‘This Could Be Bad’
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters. “We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare, in the expectation that this could be bad.”
That grim prognosis rattled markets, and Trump spent the nearly day-long flight back from India stewing over a crisis that could pose an existential threat to his presidency. When he returned, he again sought to downplay the threat posed by the virus, saying he didn’t believe spread was “inevitable.”
“We have it so well under control,” Trump said. “We really have done a very good job.”
Thus began weeks of the president reassuring Americans that there was little to fear, even as his top health officials sounded the alarm.
During a meeting on March 2 with pharmaceutical executives, the president sought to buttress his frequent contention that the virus might disappear as temperatures warm.
“It seems to be very seasonal, right?” Trump asked.
Senators pressed Fauci on that point a day later, and got a more circumspect answer.
“This is a brand new virus, with which we have no experience,” Fauci said. “So, even though the concept that when warm weather comes many respiratory viruses diminish, we have no guarantee at all that this is going to happen with this virus.”
Like Fauci, officials in the Trump administration have learned to push back gently on the more extreme falsehoods from the president, whether it’s diminishing the threat of Russian interference in U.S. elections or the danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Sometimes administration officials attempt to rein in the president on the fly -- like when he asked health officials last Monday about the possibility of a vaccine “over the next few months.”
“You won’t have a vaccine,” Azar said. “You’ll have a vaccine to go into testing.”
“So you’re talking within a year?” Trump added.
“A year to a year and a half,” Fauci responded.
A day later, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he “personally” believed the mortality rate was “way under one percent.”
It fell to coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and Pence to give the president’s hunch more context two days later as they visited Seattle, where a nursing home outbreak led to more than a dozen deaths. Birx indicated Trump may have been basing his remarks on data from South Korea, which showed lower mortality rates than other countries.
“I think the president’s point was that the world is still discovering the scope of the coronavirus because many people that contract the coronavirus have no symptoms,” Pence said.
Pence offered a similarly subtle correction on Friday, after the president claimed during a tour of the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.”
In fact, testing capacity remained limited.
“I have every confidence that your physician would contact state health officials and have access to the state lab,” Pence said of someone who wanted a test. “We’ve made those tests available to the state labs.”
Trump has sought to portray himself as a medical expert. During the CDC visit, he suggested that his know-how emanated from a “great super-genius uncle” who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?”’ Trump said. “Maybe I have a natural ability.”
The president’s political opponents have picked up on the mixed messages, with Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden saying Monday that he wished Trump would “be quiet” and “just let the experts speak.”“There’s no confidence in the president, in anything he says or does,” the former vice president said in an interview with MSNBC. “He turns everything into what he thinks is a political benefit for himself, when he’s actually imploding in the process. But there’s a lot of innocent bystanders that are being badly hurt.”
Still, divergent messages continued to emanate from the White House.
During the same Fox News interview on Monday, Azar was asked about reports that the administration was seeking to limit visits by foreign dignitaries. Azar said he hadn’t seen such an announcement, but that the White House was “going to take steps just like private industry to ensure protection of our people and mitigate the spread of disease.”
Within an hour, press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement that said the reports were “completely false.”“We are conducting business as usual,” she said.
(Updates with Trump comments in ninth paragraph.)
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