“My presence here today, and working with you each and every day in the days ahead, I hope gives evidence of the priority the president has placed on this work,” Pence said Thursday as he led a meeting of the task force one day after President Trump tapped him to lead the administration’s response to the growing health threat. “He has tasked us to take every step necessary to protect the health of the American people.”
Pence faces the dual challenge of reassuring the public that he will provide accurate and full information about the outbreak and placating a president who has projected a sunny optimism that is at odds with his administration’s experts, who have offered warnings about the virus’s “inevitable” spread throughout American communities.
Trump on Thursday continued to downplay the threat, blaming the media and Democrats for creating a panic over the virus.
“I think it’s an incredible achievement what our country’s done,” he said of the effort to combat the threat.
In an effort to combat further fragmented messaging, Pence moved to seize control of all federal communications on the virus, requiring Cabinet officials and government experts to get clearance from his office before making public remarks, according to two senior administration officials.
The move came after Trump grew frustrated about some of the public statements made by government officials warning the public, which the president viewed as overly alarmist, according to the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The move drew immediate criticism from Democrats, who warned that Pence’s attempt at message control could quickly turn into an effort to suppress critical health information that the public needs.
“I will try to be as precise and non shrill as possible with my language here: It is essential in times like these that experts are allowed to tell us what’s really going on in their own words,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted.
Adding economy-focused figures to the task force, Pence appointed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow. But neither Pence’s appointments nor the moves he made Thursday were able to calm the markets, which continued their steep decline on pace for the worst week for the Dow Jones industrial average since the 2008 financial crisis.
The location of Thursday’s meeting, the Health and Human Services headquarters, was itself aimed at combating some of the disorder and internal drama that have surrounded the Trump administration’s response to an outbreak that has spread to more than 40 countries, rocked global financial markets and threatened Trump’s economy-based reelection pitch.
Pence held the meeting at HHS in part to show support for department Secretary Alex Azar, who had been leading the administration’s effort until the vice president’s appointment. Pence tried to ensure that Azar did not feel sidelined, meeting privately with him Wednesday night to plan for how they could move forward together. Pence suggested Thursday that both he and Azar would lead the government’s effort.
“I’m leading the task force, will continue to rely on the secretary’s role as chairman of the task force and the leader of Health and Human Services,” he said.
A former senior HHS official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics, said Azar, public health officials and department employees have been “doing the measured playbook response” to the coronavirus, while the White House has been obsessed with a “communications problem.”
For Azar, this created “a sense of irritation,” the official said.
Still, the former official said, the secretary and vice president “have a good working relationship.”
Pence received bipartisan support for his appointment of Birx, the State Department official who leads the government’s global response to HIV/AIDS. Some Democrats were relieved that Birx would be coordinating the response, given her status as a career official with expertise in infectious diseases.
“She will bring her infectious disease, immunologic, vaccine research and interagency coordinating capacity to this position,” Pence’s office said in a news release.
But the rapid succession of leadership announcements left some within the government confused about who was in charge of what.
One senior administration official involved in the response said many people were confused about how the response will be run. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, used a combination of expletives to describe the situation.
The official said problems with a government-created coronavirus test have limited the United States’ capacity to rapidly increase testing. Experts have grown increasingly concerned that the small number of U.S. cases may be a reflection of limited testing, not of the virus’s spread.
Pence will also be saddled with trying to improve coordination between the massive federal agencies in charge of responding to the health crisis.
Information sharing between the CDC and the State Department has been strained, said officials familiar with the matter, especially related to the posting of travel warnings to countries experiencing a coronavirus outbreak.
On Monday, observers reported confusion as the CDC appeared to vacillate its travel warning for South Korea between “level two” and “level three” multiple times that day. One CDC official attributed the confusion to a glitch in the CDC website. Regardless, U.S. diplomats were unable to warn South Korea that the United States was about to elevate its status to “level three,” a decision that implores Americans to “avoid nonessential travel” to the country and has an enormous impact on tourism and business travel between the two allies.
Trump put Pence in charge to instill some calm as administration aides increasingly came to see the coronavirus outbreak as a threat to the president’s reelection.
But the decision came with heavy criticism from Democrats and health experts who have already decried the White House for a lackluster approach to the virus.
“America wants a nonpolitical person, particularly in this hyper-political environment, to manage this response — and Vice President Pence is the opposite of that,” said Leslie Dach, who worked on HHS’s response to the Ebola virus in 2014.
Dach, who now chairs a Democrat-aligned health-care advocacy group called Protect Our Care, said Pence’s decision to add Kudlow to the task force is a sign that politics is trumping science.
At her weekly news conference at the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she spoke with Pence on Thursday morning and conveyed to him her concern about him leading the Trump administration’s response effort.
Pelosi cited Pence’s record in Indiana, where as governor in 2015 he oversaw the state’s response to its worst-ever HIV outbreak. Critics have argued that Pence’s delay in authorizing a needle exchange program exacerbated the crisis.
“This is about personnel. It’s also about respect for science, for evidence-based decision-making,” Pelosi said.
Two months passed from the start of the outbreak in 2015 before Pence declared a public state of emergency.
The spread of the disease was attributed to people injecting Opana, an addictive painkiller, with shared needles. But Pence didn’t agree with federal health experts that distributing clean needles was a good idea.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, who was added to the coronavirus task force on Thursday, released a statement defending Pence. Adams, who served as Indiana’s state health commissioner during the HIV outbreak, said he worked closely with Pence to contain its spread.
“Working together, we helped address the outbreak by implementing comprehensive syringe services programs (SSPs) that helped change the scope of the unprecedented crisis,” he said.
Other officials working on the coronavirus response were informed Wednesday that they should receive clearance from Pence’s office before making any public statements, officials said.
One administration official said the intent was not to “cut off doctors from speaking” but to “generally know who is out there and what the message is.”
As Trump largely stayed out of public sight on Thursday and administration officials working on the virus complied with the new communications directive, Pence filled in the void — addressing the outbreak during a speech to a conservative conference and in an interview with conservative television host Sean Hannity.
Pence addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he called for bipartisanship in battling the coronavirus — shortly before calling for the crowd to turn out to reelect Trump in November.
“It’s important to remember we’re all in this together,” Pence told the overwhelmingly Republican crowd. “This is not the time for partisanship.”
Moments later, he added: “I know you’re going to say yes to four more years of Donald Trump in 2020.”
Pence plans to continue his heavy campaign schedule — which has often included trips to two battleground states each week, according to a senior administration official.
There’s not much in Pence’s vice presidency that would indicate he will be able to command a whole-of-government response removed from political considerations, said Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and author of “The White House Vice Presidency.”
In 2017, Pence was tasked by Trump with leading a voter fraud task force after the president falsely claimed that millions of illegal ballots had caused him to lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. The task force disbanded months later after legal challenges and a lack of evidence to back up Trump’s conspiracy theory.
Pence was also designated to lead the transition team after Trump’s victory, a process that was beset by infighting and chaos.
One person with knowledge of Pence’s operation said he does not have many staff members who understand pandemics and does not have a deep understanding himself. This person said Pence will have to quickly hire people if he wants to succeed.
“It’s a risky assignment for Pence to take on,” Goldstein said, pointing to bureaucratic protectionism that can exist in government. “If you parachute into somebody else’s turf, whoever is losing that turf will not be happy about it.”
John Hudson, Felicia Sonmez and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.