The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McConnell claims impeachment ‘diverted the attention’ of Trump administration from coronavirus response

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) listen as President Trump speakson on March 27 in the Oval Office. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the impeachment of President Trump distracted the administration’s attention away from the coronavirus crisis, defending the president amid criticism of the delayed U.S. response to the pandemic.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, McConnell blamed the Democratic-led impeachment effort, even though Trump was acquitted by the Senate on Feb. 5 — more than three weeks before the first coronavirus death in the United States.

“It came up while we were, you know, tied down in the impeachment trial,” McConnell told Hewitt. “And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything, every day, was all about impeachment.”

The White House refused to cooperate with the Democratic-led impeachment probe, and the Senate swiftly acquitted Trump without allowing any witnesses to testify during the trial.

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

McConnell’s comments also do not take into account the president’s own words and actions related to the coronavirus.

Trump repeatedly played down the threat the virus posed toward the United States. When news of the first U.S. case broke in late January, Trump declared, “We have it totally under control. . . . It’s going to be just fine.” At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was calling on the federal government to declare the crisis a public health emergency.

Democrats also criticized the Trump administration in early February for not taking the crisis seriously enough, with some warning that medical institutions were in urgent need of additional staff and supplies.

Amid the first reports of community transmission in late February, Trump continued to dismiss the risk. “It’s going to disappear,” he said. “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

And despite McConnell’s claim that impeachment distracted Trump from addressing the coronavirus, the president did find time in January and February to hold a host of “Keep America Great” campaign rallies and fundraisers across the country.

The impeachment trial began Jan. 16, with a team of lawyers defending the president in the Senate. The government agencies involved in dealing with novel coronavirus — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, and others — were not involved in the impeachment process.

Trump enacted travel and quarantine measures in late January and signed an $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus spending bill in early March. But it wasn’t until the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic in mid-March that the president began to shift his rhetoric and warn Americans to take steps to limit the spread.

In Tuesday’s interview, McConnell said Trump has been doing “very, very well” at leading the country during the pandemic, pointing to a recent Gallup poll that showed 60 percent of Americans — including 27 percent of Democrats — approve of his handling of the crisis.

“I think he’ll keep it up, and I’m proud of the way he’s been handling it,” McConnell said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.