ATLANTA — President Donald Trump’s visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday turned into a scattershot defense of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, veering into political score-settling, exaggerations and talk harking back to his impeachment.
With financial markets slowing and the virus spreading, Trump tried once more to quell the growing alarm that has prompted travel to be curtailed and events to be canceled from coast to coast. But Trump, wearing his “Keep America Great” campaign hat while discussing the global worry, repeatedly detoured from his message of reassurance.
Trump called Washington state’s governor, who is dealing with the most serious outbreak in the nation, "a snake.” He said he’d prefer that people exposed to the virus on a cruise ship be left aboard so they wouldn’t be added to the count for the nation’s total number of infections. And he falsely claimed that a test for the virus was available immediately to all who want it. In fact, the lack of testing capability is presenting a major problem to health workers in the field.
Trump also said the accuracy of the coronavirus test was “perfect — like the letter was perfect.” With that, Trump was making a comparison to the July phone call with Ukraine’s president that led to his impeachment. Trump, who was acquitted by the Senate last month, has insisted he did nothing wrong.
Before departing Washington, Trump signed an $8.3 billion coronavirus response funding bill at the White House and instructed the public: “Be calm. It will go away.”
“We have very low numbers compared to major countries throughout the world. Our numbers are lower than just about anybody,” Trump said about cases of the virus.
But his messaging was more scattered at the CDC, reflective of the on-again, off-again, on-again nature of the trip itself. The White House had announced early Friday that Trump’s trip to the CDC was canceled because of concern about a possible infection there, but that person tested negative and Trump ended up going after all.
The White House initially gave a different answer as to why Trump wasn’t going: That he did not want to interfere with agency functioning in a difficult time.
During his visit to the CDC, Trump touted the ratings of his town hall this week on Fox News and mocked a CNN reporter. He cut off Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as he tried to counsel Americans to be patient. And despite calling this week for bipartisanship during the crisis, Trump said he told Vice President Mike Pence not to be complimentary during his Thursday meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington because “he is a snake.”
“So I told Mike not to be complimentary of the governor because that governor is a snake, OK? Inslee. I said, ‘If you’re nice to him he will take advantage.’ And I would have said no. Let me just tell you: We have a lot of problems with the governor, the governor of Washington. ... So Mike may be happy with him but I’m not.”
Trump again insisted, falsely, that for those concerned about the virus, “Anybody who wants a test, can get a test.”
Pence, who chairs the federal coronavirus task force, at a later briefing suggested a timeline of “weeks” before the test would be widely available to the general public.
“We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” Pence said while touring 3M facilities in Minnesota on Thursday.
Pence was also asked whether Trump’s comments about Inslee and impeachment raised questions about how seriously the president was taking the virus. The vice president responded, “I promise you, President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety of the American people.”
Inslee tweeted his own response to Trump’s comments: ”It’s important for leaders to speak with one voice. I just wish the president and vice president could get on the same page.”
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Trump also said he talked on the phone with California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the 3,500 people stuck on a cruise ship anchored off the coast of California. He said he’d prefer for the passengers to remain on the ship — in part so they would not count against the total number of victims in the United States.
“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of the people on that ship,” he said. Trump did say he would defer to the medical experts and Pence later said the ship would be brought to a U.S. port.
The legislation Trump signed at the White House provides federal public health agencies with money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments and helps state and local governments prepare and respond to the threat.
“It’s an unforeseen problem,” Trump said of the virus. “It came out of nowhere. We’re taking care of it.”
The president, while touring the CDC, talked up his ability to understand the virus, although he has repeatedly misstated how long it would take for a vaccine to be developed and available.
The president indicated his genes might play a role in his scientific acumen, naming an uncle who worked at MIT: “I like this stuff. I really get it,” Trump said. “People are surprised that I understand it. ... Maybe I have a natural ability.”
Riechmann reported from Washington. Lemire reported from New York