WASHINGTON — President Trump did not order a slowdown in coronavirus testing because he wanted to depress the nation’s infection rate, top officials of the White House coronavirus task force said in congressional testimony on Tuesday.
“I know for sure that, to my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, and a widely trusted source of information on the pandemic. “That just is a fact.”
Fauci made his remarks in a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee titled “Oversight of the Trump Administration’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus. It has killed nearly 121,000 people in the U.S. in the last four months.
Testing remains an important means of understanding how the disease is spreading in communities. Public health officials are especially concerned with positivity rates — that is, how many of those tests show new coronavirus infections.
Positivity rates have shown a worrying rise in states like Florida that were quick to lift lockdown measures. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close ally of Trump, has tried to blame rising coronavirus infection rates in his state on an increase in testing but has since acknowledged that testing alone cannot explain that rise.
Fauci’s assurance comes three days after Trump told his supporters at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., that the increases in coronavirus testing were making the outbreak in the U.S. seem worse than it actually is and therefore reflecting poorly on his leadership of the nation.
“You know, testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump told the 6,000 or so people gathered for his first campaign rally since early March. “You’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases,” he went on to say of the 27 million diagnostic tests that have been administered across the nation (many people receive more than one coronavirus test, meaning that the number of people tested is considerably less than 27 million).
“So I said to my people,” Trump said, “slow the testing down, please.”
The claim stunned many people for its suggestion of a deliberate slowdown, and the White House quickly tried to control damage from the seeming admission, telling reporters that the president was “obviously kidding” about having ordered less testing.
It is not clear just how much impact such an order would have, since Trump has delegated governors with the responsibility for testing and other aspects of the coronavirus response, including lockdowns. In most states, public health laboratories, private laboratories, hospitals and community clinics run testing sites of their own, with no input from the Trump administration.
Despite that, Trump said on Tuesday morning that he was, in fact, serious when he said in Tulsa over the weekend that he had urged less testing.
“I don’t kid,” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, just as Fauci and others were preparing to testify on Capitol Hill.
Fauci has not been afraid to contradict the president in the past, leading to a sometimes tense relationship with Trump. But asked by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., about Trump’s comments from Saturday, Fauci attempted to dispel any suspicion about a testing slowdown order.
“In fact, we will be doing more testing,” Fauci said.
Three other witnesses then backed up Fauci’s assertion: Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Dr. Brett Giroir, a top official with the Department of Health and Human Services who is in charge of coronavirus testing for the White House task force on the pandemic.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany also said Trump didn’t actually mean he was slowing down testing.
The president “has made it abundantly clear that he appreciates testing, that we have tested more Americans than any other country has tested in their respective countries in the world,” she said. “But what he was making was a serious point, and that's why he said, ‘I don't kid.’ He was noting he was making a serious point, but he was using sarcasm to do that at the rally. “
The shifting storyline is unlikely to quell Democrats’ suspicions. On Monday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who is chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent a letter about Trump’s testing comments to Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force; Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; and Redfield of the CDC.
Clyburn requested detailed information on how testing has been implemented and monitored by the Trump administration. And he chided Trump for what he said in Tulsa. “No American should go untested because the President fears an accurate count of infections,” he wrote.
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