The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats, public health experts decry Trump for saying he asked officials to slow down coronavirus testing

Even members of his own administration expressed concern about Trump’s comments.

The upper section of the arena is seen partially empty as President Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s Saturday night remark that he asked officials to “slow the [coronavirus] testing down” sparked harsh rebukes from experts and frustration from his own staffers, who say it undercuts their efforts to reassure Americans as the disease surges around the country.

The president’s comment, which came on the same day that eight states reported their highest-ever single-day case counts, drew a chorus of criticism from congressional Democrats and public health officials, who worry the president is more concerned with saving face than combating the pandemic.

“Looking at it as a scoreboard is the wrong way to think about it,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “To think of it as something you can manipulate or slow down based on what the numbers look like speaks to a complete misunderstanding of what an infectious-disease response should be.”

At his June 20 Tulsa campaign rally, President Trump advocated for slowing coronavirus testing out of concern that more testing might reveal more cases. (Video: The Washington Post)

In his first campaign appearance since the virus hit the United States, President Trump called testing — which public health experts say is a crucial part of controlling the pandemic — a “double-edged sword.”

“Here’s the bad part … when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases,” Trump told his supporters. “So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”

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On Sunday, Trump’s chief trade adviser Peter Navarro called Trump’s comments “tongue-in-cheek.” Another White House official told The Washington Post that Trump was joking, a common defense from Trump’s aides after the president says something controversial.

Acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf offered a different explanation, saying during an appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the comments were rooted in Trump’s frustration with the press.

“Instead of focusing on the actual progress that this administration has made in revamping an antiquated testing system and testing record millions of Americans, they’re focused just on the rising case numbers,” Wolf said.

But behind the scenes, several senior administration officials involved in the coronavirus response expressed frustration with Trump’s comments, given the administration’s efforts to ramp up testing over the last few months.

One senior official described the coronavirus response as something of a political albatross. The person noted that administration officials and the vice president have been trying to convince the public that Trump is working tirelessly to stamp out the virus — and faster than ever before.

The day after President Trump held a rally in Tulsa amid the covid-19 pandemic, some voiced concerns that his crowd of supporters posed public health risks. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s comment on Saturday undermined that message.

“The president, or no one else for the matter, has ever told anyone to slow down testing,” said one person involved in the coronavirus efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about administration efforts. “He was joking, but it’s not helpful.”

Trump has long viewed the rising coronavirus numbers as a negative story line for him, because he believes he will be blamed for more cases, and associates a rising number of cases with bad publicity.

He has also expressed skepticism to other administration officials that cases are being over-counted, two senior administration officials said. Trump grew particularly frustrated in April and early May, advisers said, that his administration was getting heavily criticized for still being too slow to ramp up testing.

Internally, one administration official with knowledge of coronavirus discussions said Trump has been focused on the nation’s increased testing capacity — so he can brag about the increased numbers publicly.

In recent weeks, the president has also made a concerted effort to play down the virus and “move on” to other topics, the two officials said, such as the economy.

But the president’s comment in Tulsa on Saturday night made moving on tough.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) condemned Trump’s remarks in a statement Sunday, saying that the American people “are owed answers about why President Trump wants less testing.”

“Testing, tracing, treatment and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but President Trump orders his Administration to slow down the testing that saves lives,” Pelosi said in a statement.

For months, Trump downplayed the threat of the virus and has grown impatient with a weeks-long shutdown that cratered the economy and resulted in more than 40 million Americans losing their jobs.

Even as the number of deaths per day remains at about 800, Trump has encouraged states to reopen, told Americans to resume normal life and flouted his own government’s advice to wear a mask while out in public.

Trump likes to say the pandemic is nearly over, even as the country confirms more than 20,000 new cases daily and the death toll lurches past 118,000, calling outbreaks that arise “embers.” Vice President Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, penned an op-ed last week in the Wall Street Journal declaring that there was no coronavirus “second wave,” touted the administration’s progress in fighting the virus and blamed the media for overhyping the threat of a second wave of the virus.

Experts have disputed those comments.

“We’re still really early in this pandemic and it is not helpful to create a mind-set that we’re almost done,” said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “It’s part of what we’re seeing in terms of large outbreaks going on in Arizona, Texas and Florida, is people have gotten convinced the pandemic is over.”

Public health experts widely agree that the pandemic is likely to surge again in the fall and will pose an extraordinary challenge to the U.S. health care system because coronavirus will converge with the seasonal flu outbreak. Yet Trump continues to suggest otherwise and to complain about the few mechanisms his administration has to get the pandemic under control.

“Every expert agrees that testing is the bedrock of both surveillance — telling how the epidemic is progressing — and control — finding and isolating cases,” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “To deliberately scale back testing because it is giving a more complete picture of the epidemic is nothing less than public health malpractice.”