White House to wind down coronavirus task force

Hans Nichols and Dartunorro Clark and Caroline Vakil

President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force is in the early stages of winding down, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The meetings in the Situation Room of the White House have been shorter, and the task force no longer meets every day, according to the two people. Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci are still expected to be at the White House daily, but other members of the task force may be present less frequently. However, two separate sources familiar with the matter noted that the task force met Tuesday.

The news was first reported by The New York Times.

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Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the panel in late February, weeks after the first known case of the coronavirus in the U.S. and a few days after the first publicly reported coronavirus-related death in the country.

Trump confirmed on Tuesday that the task force is disbanding while speaking to reporters in Arizona while visiting a factory that is manufacturing masks.

“I think that, as far as the task force, Mike Pence and the task force have done a great job,” Trump said. "But we’re now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening, and we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”

However, Trump said he is not saying “mission accomplished.”

“The mission accomplished is for when it’s over.”

Pence told NBC News on Tuesday that there is no set date for the task force to formally complete its work but that the panel expects to begin to shift its centralized response back to the individual federal agencies in late May or early June. Pence said the group has already discussed such a transition plan with the Federal Emergency Management Agency

"As I've said before, as we continue to practice social distancing and states engage in safe and responsible reopening plans, I truly believe — and the trend lines support it — that we could be in a very different place," he said.

Pence also said Birx will continue to offer expertise as the administration monitors infection rates as states begin to reopen.

Birx said: "We'll still keep a close eye on the data, because we have very good data now. It took us a while to build that capacity. And we'll make sure that, you know, we're watching that at a federal level."

The task force until recently held near-daily televised briefings and was a lightning rod for controversy as the president often used the podium to blast critics, spar with reporters and boast about his administration's response while infection rates climbed.

The number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases is nearing 1.2 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University as of Tuesday afternoon. There have been over 70,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

The briefings also introduced the wider public to Fauci and Birx, two of the nation's leading infectious disease doctors.

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The administration has faced lingering criticism over its coronavirus response. Trump has in recent weeks encouraged states to start easing restrictions established to stop the spread of the coronavirus, despite warnings from health experts that reopening too soon could lead to more death and economic damage.

During a teleconference with Pence in April, Democrats laid bare their deep-seated frustrations with the administration and the task force. During a call, for instance, Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told Pence and the task force that he has "never been so mad about a phone call in my life" and that the administration's lack of national testing is "a dereliction of duty."

In late April, Trump announced a new federal coronavirus testing "blueprint" to aid governors in ramping up capacity as a handful of states, such as Georgia and Colorado, begin slowly lifting stay-at-home restrictions.

Trump said the plan includes provisions to expand state testing capacity and establish widespread monitoring systems.