Pence gently tries to correct Trump's false coronavirus testing claims

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Friday evening found Vice President Pence in an uncommon and uncomfortable position: Having to downplay and contradict assertions made by his boss. It proved a delicate act for Pence, who has become the face of the administration’s coronavirus response, and who has sought to project an aura of steely confidence.

Trump can sometimes frustrate those efforts, as he did during visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday afternoon. 

Wearing a red “Keep America Great” baseball cap, the president used the occasion to offer his freewheeling thoughts on everything ranging from Fox News ratings to the educational pedigree of his uncle John Trump, who was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

But there were also blatantly incorrect claims, too, as when Trump said that “anybody that needs a test gets a test” for coronavirus. In fact, the CDC has badly lagged in preparing a nationwide testing regime, and only a minuscule percentage of Americans can currently be tested. That percentage will grow in the coming days, but not nearly as quickly as public health experts believe is necessary to contain the disease, which has infected at least 280 people and killed 15 in the U.S..

Trump also said during his CDC tour that the tests are “all perfect,” comparing it to his “perfect” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That phone call served as the basis for the impeachment inquiry that culminated in Trump’s acquittal last month

In fact, an initial CDC test was flawed, which delayed its implementation by about two weeks, during a critical period in February when the virus was spreading in Washington state and elsewhere.

Trump added that he would rather not allow infected Americans to disembark the Grand Princess cruise ship that has been floating off the coast of Northern California. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship,” Trump complained as his secretary of Health and Human Services and the director of the CDC looked on.

The White House briefing of the coronavirus task force began almost as soon as Trump’s remarks in Atlanta ended, which all but assured that Pence — who Trump appointed to head the task force — would be forced to account for the president’s statements. 

Vice President Mike Pence at a coronavirus briefing in the White House on Friday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Pence tried to do so cautiously, aware that Trump is sensitive to any efforts to upstage or contradict him. Speaking of the coronavirus testing regime, which has been mired in confusion, Pence admitted that “we have a ways to go yet.” About 2,500 kits have been shipped out to laboratories. That means that 1.5 million tests are available. Because of testing protocols, however, those tests can be administered to only about 500,000 people.

In an implicit rebuke to Trump, Pence said it would be a “matter of weeks”

before the tests would be “broadly available.”

Pence also addressed the issue of the Grand Princess. He said that 21 people on board the cruise ship have been infected with the coronavirus. Ignoring Trump’s complaints about infection statistics, Pence said he and California Gov. Gavin Newsom had “developed a plan” to have the ship dock at a “noncommercial” port.

“Those that need to be quarantined will be quarantined, those that require additional medical attention will receive it,” Pence said. Food and Drug Administration Director Stephen Hahn added that test would “available significantly” by the end of next week.

On Thursday, Pence visited with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose leadership he has praised since the state became an epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, despite Inslee being a Democrat often critical of the Trump administration. 

In his remarks in Atlanta, Trump offered his own thoughts on Inslee, calling him a “snake.” 

Pence was later confronted with that statement at the White House briefing, but the vice president ignored the question. In the course of the briefing, Pence also effusively praised Newsom, the California governor, who is another Trump nemesis. 

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