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Trump Puts Vice President Pence In Charge Of Coronavirus Response


Tonight, President Trump tried to quell rising fears about the effects of the growing coronavirus outbreak.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't think it's inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level, or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we're totally prepared. We have the best people in the world.

CHANG: All right. To discuss the political stakes of this virus and the health concerns, I'm joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hey to both of you.



CHANG: (Laughter) All right. I'm going to start with you, Tam. What did the president say tonight about the U.S. response to the outbreak?

KEITH: Well, as you heard him say there, he says that the country is prepared, that America has the best people in the world working on this. And he also took some credit, saying that the travel restrictions that he put in place early on helped prevent this from becoming more widespread in the United States.

In a lot of ways, he was more measured than he often is. He didn't make a lot of wild claims. There wasn't as much cheerleading as he has done in recent days. He seemed to be trying to strike a balance between being too rosy or trying to avoid inciting panic. And significantly, he did, though, say that he was putting the vice president in charge of sort of quarterbacking the whole of government response to this - seems like perhaps he was listening to health advisers and also responding to some of the criticism out there that had been coming in in recent days.

CHANG: That said, even though the president wasn't quite the cheerleader that we have heard him be before, you know, both the president and the vice president tonight talked about how commendable the administration's response has been since the outbreak began in China.

And Richard, I want to turn to you on that. Was the U.S.'s response as robust as both the president and vice president are making it out to be?

HARRIS: Well, so far, it has been in the hands of very competent public health officials. They're not perfect, but I think that that is a - that's a good sign that's really reassuring that thus far, they seem to be largely scientist - science-based decisions. I think closing the borders has made a big difference. There have been 15 cases, the 15th reported today. Fourteen of them - they understand where they came from. Twelve were travelers. Two were the spouses of travelers.

This 15 case is a little bit worrisome because that person - they don't know where that person got the virus, so that could be a sign that there's something else afoot. And that's called community spread. If that turns out to be the case, that could mean that there's a lot more floating around there we don't know about. But we're letting the CDC spend some time to research that and figure out what's going on with that case.

In addition, there were these 45 other people who were either off the cruise ship or who were evacuated from Wuhan. And they've all been cloistered and sequestered. And so there's no concern about the virus spreading from them.

CHANG: Right. OK. You mentioned the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier today, the president tweeted that the CDC is, quote, "doing a great job," and he blamed the news media for making things seem worse than they are. What do you think? Is that a fair assessment?

HARRIS: Yeah. By and large, it is. The CDC has had some problems, particularly trying to get testing going widely in this country to really understand the breadth of this. They - they're - they developed a test that didn't quite work, and they're stumbling to make that work.

I think, really, what's happening is not just that the news media is whipping things up, but the CDC is sending out a new message now as of this week, which is that we have to be aware that this could get worse. And we want to make sure that communities, schools, businesses - everyone's really thinking about what their plans are if things do get bad - how you're going to control this disease - 'cause there's no drug, there's no vaccine right now.

CHANG: OK. Tam, you mentioned that President Trump announced he will be making Vice President Mike Pence be in charge of coordinating the government response to COVID-19. This is the illness caused by the new coronavirus. The president was criticized last night during the Democratic debate for not having had a White House official lead this whole response. What do you make of the president's choice of putting the vice president in charge of this effort now?

KEITH: Well - so there has been a coronavirus task force that has agency heads and other people from the White House that's been in place all this month. What the president is adding is the vice president on top of that. And the vice president is someone who has executive experience. He was a governor of the state of Indiana.

Now, while he was governor, there was really strong criticism of the way he handled an HIV outbreak. But ultimately, he did handle that as governor. He has experience working with state and local governments. And there was some thought that Alex Azar, the head of Health and Human Services - he has a very big day job.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KEITH: And the vice president, although has a job - you know, it is - it's a little more fungible, and he's not leading a - an entire giant government agency. And so the thought was - and as conveyed by the president - that the vice president could lead this. It also is symbolic in that they are saying, hey, we acknowledge this is a big deal. And the vice president will lead it up. It's unclear whether he will step back from other political duties or other duties and really quarterback this or whether he becomes something of a spokesman who has a very calm demeanor.

CHANG: I want to ask you the last question here. It's a question about money. This effort to fight a worsening outbreak here in the U.S. will, of course, require money. The president mentioned $2.5 billion in funding tonight. Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, wants 8.5 billion. Tam, do you have any idea how much money we're going to need for this?

KEITH: It is not clear, but the president says he will take what he can get. There are a lot of numbers flying around, and we will see what Congress sends over. They can always send more.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tamara Keith and Richard Harris.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.