Updated Feb 27, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump assigns Pence to lead U.S. coronavirus response

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump announced at a press briefing Wednesday evening that he'll be putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of leading the administration's response to the coronavirus.

The big picture: In the wake of a market sell-off and warnings from health officials that there's a real threat of the coronavirus spreading in the U.S., Trump sought to reassure the nation and Wall Street that the U.S. is "ready" for whatever comes next.

  • The previous point person on the administration's coronavirus response was Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Details: At Wednesday's press briefing, Trump said that he's willing to accept however much Congress deems appropriate to spend on combatting the coronavirus. The administration had asked for $2.5 billion, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer countered with a proposal of $8.5 billion.

  • Trump continued to downplay concerns when pressed by reporters, contradicting an assessment from a CDC official that the spread of the virus is inevitable: "It's gonna be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger. It may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all."
  • Asked about the market sell-off, Trump said that he thinks stocks will recover and suggested that the Democratic debate on Tuesday night contributed to losses.
  • He also repeatedly compared the coronavirus to the flu, saying he was shocked to learn of its mortality rate: "The flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me."

Between the lines: As Axios' Justin Green notes, the coronavirus response is exactly the situation where a president needs the credibility to truthfully explain a tough situation to the public.

Back in the Ebola crisis of 2014, Trump did the opposite:

  • Aug. 2014: "The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!"
  • Oct. 2014: "Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa-and fast. Stop flights."

He also criticized former President Obama for appointing an Ebola czar "with zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control."

What they're saying: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement Wednesday again criticizing the administration for leaving "critical positions" vacant, specifically those in charge of managing pandemics at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security. 

  • "The Trump Budget called for slashing almost $700 million from the Centers for Disease Control," she added. "And even now, the Administration continues to devalue Americans’ health security by ransacking funding from other vital public health needs."

This article has been updated with more details, including comment from Pelosi.

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