Trump Coronavirus Response Disturbs Capitol Hill
The messages coming from the Trump administration about the novel coronavirus were not reassuring to lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday after the White House sought $2.5 billion to prepare for a possible pandemic.
Democrats were loudest in raising alarm at what they were hearing from the administration, slamming the White House for being flat-footed on a looming threat, seeking too few resources to deal with it, and downplaying the true potential crisis.
"They don't have their hands around this," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who pointed out that the administration has cut programs aimed at battling epidemics. "They're just sort of freelancing because they were caught by surprise. They're in a deep hole because of the cuts they made, but most of all, to keep the American people safe, they don't have a plan."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle disagreed with claims from President Trump that the virus was "very well under control" in the U.S., and from his top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, who called the crisis "contained."
Trump also said, "I think that's a problem that's going to go away."
At the same time, top health and homeland security officials had briefed senators that a major outbreak in the United States is an extremely serious and growing threat.
Asked whether he had concerns that the administration was not on the same page, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared flummoxed, then deferred the question to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had just presided over a hearing with Health Secretary Alex Azar.
Blunt said there was an "all hands on deck" search for answers to the disease, but declined to address White House claims that all was well.
“Well, I don't, I can't comment on what the White House has been saying on this because the people who work for the White House are not saying that,” Blunt said.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Azar that he should not be shy in his request for funding.
"This is not the time to try to shortchange the American people on anything... this is the time to step up," Shelby said, adding at the end of his questioning, "If you lowball something like this, you'll pay for it later."
Azar stood by the $2.5 billion request, which includes shifting half of that money from other programs. He said the Department of Health and Human Services already had more than $100 million on hand specifically for a pandemic response.
But Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Health Committee, did not accept his assurances, noting that much of what the health officials said they need does not yet exist. One example she raised was that officials believe they need at least 300 million masks for healthcare professionals, but they have only 30 million, and no supplier.
"Can you assure every single American today that if this pandemic hits our shores that we have everything available, and we stockpiled it, and we're ready to go?" Murray asked Azar. "Is our country ready?"
"That's precisely why we need to work with Congress," Azar answered, suggesting officials will refine requests as needed.
In a concurrent hearing, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf seemed to add to confusion by being unable to answer questions from senators, or answering incorrectly.
He was grilled pointedly by Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy (R), who wanted assurances that the person charged with guarding the homeland was up to speed on the disease that has sickened 80,000 people and killed 2,700, mostly in China.
He was unable to satisfy Kennedy on questions about whether Wolf understood what the medical experts' models were predicting for possible impacts on the United States.
Wolf said he would defer to the medical experts and a task force working on the peril.
"You're the secretary. I think you ought to know that answer," Kennedy said.
In an attempt to satisfy the senator, Wolf also gave obviously incorrect answers.
Asked when there would be a vaccine, Wolf said several months. Officials elsewhere said trials were beginning within three months, and that a vaccine would take a year to a year and a half.
Asked what the death rate was for the virus, known as Covid-19, Wolf was not able to give Kennedy the latest specific estimates, but offered it was between 1.5 and 2 percent. Asked how that compares to regular flu, Wolf said it was the same, when in fact seasonal flu claims the lives of under 0.1 percent of those infected.
Kennedy later ran the same questions past Azar, getting him to specifically counter Wolf's estimate for a vaccine, although Kennedy himself misstated Wolf's estimate, lowering it to a month and a half.
Azar offered a more hopeful timeline than some other medical leaders, but said it was more like a year, not several months, before the cure could be ready.
"Maybe you ought to talk to the secretary of Homeland Security before he spreads that too far," Kennedy said.