WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday sought to justify his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as his task force unveiled a distribution of $11 billion to states to help them speed testing of the general population.
That new infusion, the president said, would ensure that the United States “continues to conduct more tests than any country on Earth, by far.” He continued to favorably compare testing capacity within the United States to that of South Korea, which has been widely praised for its coronavirus response.
Even as he promised more testing to come, Trump said that all Americans already had access to a coronavirus diagnostic test. “If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested,” he said, reprising an assurance he made when touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta two months ago.
“Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” he said at the time.
The president spoke on Monday from the Rose Garden. Testing equipment displayed on tables on either side of the podium were meant to serve as evidence of what he called “the largest manufacturing ramp-up since the Second World War.”
The United States has drastically increased its testing capacity since February, and about 9 million Americans have so far been tested for the coronavirus, which causes a lung disease called COVID-19. Still, shortages in coronavirus tests and test-related equipment continue to be reported across the country.
But having described himself as the nation’s cheerleader in chief, Trump has generally brushed aside such concerns as political attacks meant to harm his reelection prospects. And even as the CDC reports between 20,000 and 30,000 daily new coronavirus cases, the president has moved to swiftly declare victory.
“We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” Trump said at one point during the Monday briefing, which quickly evoked comparisons to George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech in 2003. Bush’s declaration was followed by a deadly insurgency that took thousands of American lives.
The sense of victory was not immediately apparent on an unseasonably cold Washington afternoon. In recent days, the coronavirus has descended upon the White House, with one of the president’s own valets testing positive for the disease. Katie Miller, a spokesperson for Vice President Mike Pence, has also tested positive for the coronavirus.
On Monday, the White House issued guidance that everyone within the complex had to wear a protective face mask. And yet Trump himself has chosen not to wear one.
“In the case of me, I am not close to anybody,” the president said. “I’m very far away from everyone,” he added. He then pointed to White House staffers standing along the West Wing colonnade, all covered in face masks.
Trump has advocated for the country to begin to reopen, and though that decision ultimately rests with state governors, the bully pulpit of the presidency can be difficult to ignore. Last month, the president tweeted in support of armed protesters who called on Democratic governors to lift lockdown measures.
He harkened back to that argument on Monday, albeit in more measured tones, charged that Democratic governors were making “no effort” to “get back into gear. And the people aren’t gonna stand for it.” But with increased coronavirus-related measures at the White House, the argument lacked the force it previously had.
“I think we’ve controlled it very well,” Trump said of the White House outbreak.
Trump made similar claims in early February, when he promised that the coronavirus would not inflict significant damage on the nation. It has killed 80,000 Americans, and is expected to kill many more.
Trump could not explain why Vice President Pence has not chosen to undergo a strict quarantine after coming into contact with Miller, as public health guidelines would seem to mandate he do. Several of the nation’s top public health officials have taken that very precaution.
“He will give you that information,” Trump said of Pence.
As the president himself acknowledged, White House officials have recourse to daily coronavirus testing, whereas most members of the public do not. One reporter went so far as to call that a “double standard,” an assertion that clearly displeased Trump. “You know what?,” he answered, “if we didn't get the tests, if we did no tests in the White House, you'd be up complaining, ‘Why aren’t you getting tests for the White House?’ See, we can’t win.”
Adm. Brett Giroir, a top Department of Health and Human Services official who has been put in charge of testing by the White House, said at Monday’s press conference that “everybody who needs a test can get a test.” He then went on to explain that the people in that category were those showing symptoms of “respiratory illness” and those who have had a known contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
That seemed to be a significant qualification to Trump’s assertion that anyone who wants a test could get one.
Additional reporting by Brittany Shepherd.
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