Vice President Mike Pence will be put in charge of the U.S. response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday in an address from the White House.
Trump, speaking without prepared remarks in a rare appearance at the briefing room podium, maintained that the risk to the U.S. from the virus “remains very low,” amid global fears that a pandemic could be imminent.
The spread of the disease in the U.S. isn’t “inevitable,” Trump said, though he noted that it’s possible that “it could get fairly substantially worse.” A day earlier, federal health officials said the spread of the virus was “inevitable.”
But the U.S. is ready for “anything,” Trump said, including an outbreak “of larger proportions.”
Trump said he would be putting Pence, who has “a certain talent for this,” in charge of the response.
The president claimed that his veep’s experience with health care policy as governor of Indiana made him a good fit for the role.
Pence will be in charge of coordinating the medical and other professionals working to keep the virus at bay in the U.S., Trump said.
Trump announced the news conference in a tweet Wednesday morning, shortly after returning from a state visit to India where he downplayed the threat of the virus to the U.S. “We’re really down to probably 10” cases, Trump told reporters there.
The president also sowed some confusion in India, when he said “we’re very close to a vaccine” — a claim that the White House said was made in reference to the Ebola virus, not the coronavirus.
Around noon Wednesday, the CDC had confirmed 60 coronavirus cases in the U.S., a majority of which came from passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined off the coast of Japan.
From its epicenter in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, the virus has spread to nearly every corner of the globe, killing more than 2,700 people and infecting tens of thousands more.
Hours before the presser was scheduled to begin, Politico reported that the White House was considering appointing a coronavirus czar. The White House denied the report, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that he didn’t anticipate a czar being appointed.
“Mike’s not a czar,” Trump said when asked about his decision to put Pence in charge of the response to the coronavirus. “This isn’t a czar … I have very talented people. I want to use them on this.”
Azar told reporters in the briefing room that he is still the chairman of the coronavirus task force. He said he is “delighted” to have Pence “helping” him on the plan.
Trump has rarely appeared in the James S. Brady Briefing Room, where White House press secretaries have traditionally fielded questions from the press. The last official press briefing, however, was nearly a year ago during the tenure of former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The current press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, has never held an official press briefing.
The Trump administration has taken numerous steps in response to the virus, such as declaring a public health emergency and imposing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines. And White House officials, along with Trump himself, have worked to ease fears of a pandemic that have rattled governments and investors around the world.
Azar testified before Congress on Wednesday that the administration’s response to the coronavirus “has been the smoothest interagency process I’ve experienced in my 20 years of dealing with public health emergencies.”
A day earlier, National Economic Director Larry Kudlow told CNBC that “We have contained this. I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight.”
Kudlow’s comments contrasted with a CDC official who said that “Current global circumstances suggest it’s likely this virus will cause a pandemic.”
The administration’s comments have failed to calm markets in recent trading sessions, however. Stocks plunged Monday and Tuesday in the largest two-day sell-off in years. After initially clawing back some ground on Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average once again fell into the red to end the trading session.
Trump was angered by the CDC’s briefing Tuesday, CNBC reported.
Democratic leaders and presidential candidates have criticized the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak.
On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., slammed the Trump administration’s $2.5 billion coronavirus budget request as “too little too late.” Schumer said Wednesday that $8.5 billion was needed to fight the outbreak in the U.S.
Trump shot back at his critics during the news conference at the White House on Wednesday night. “If they want to give us more money, we’ll take more money,” he said.