Trump later favorably compared the annual death toll of the flu to that of the coronavirus thus far, though health experts have cautioned against drawing similarities as they scramble to learn more about the new outbreak. He noted the relatively small number of cases in the U.S. compared to other nations, though the U.S. count is widely expected to rise as tests for the virus become increasingly available. Despite the cancellation of large gatherings across the country — including a health IT conference Trump was set to address before it was canceled over coronavirus fears — and the temporary closure of some schools, Trump proclaimed that “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”
But in between comments on the economy and coronavirus, Trump fell back on a smattering of familiar attacks, accusing his predecessor, without evidence, of being the “most corrupt Administration in the history of our Country” and complained about what he said were “very bad, sick people” trying to undermine him from within the government.
After beginning his day at Mar-a-Lago in South Florida, the president’s public schedule on Monday revolved almost entirely around travel to and from a closed-door fundraiser in Orlando. He will return to Washington after the fundraiser.
Pence’s public schedule, by comparison, consists of a noon conference call with governors about the outbreak, a medal ceremony, and a meeting with the coronavirus task force he leads along with an on-camera press briefing on the outbreak.
Trump’s off-topic missives come as a cruise ship housing nearly two dozen passengers who have tested positive for coronavirus is set to dock in California at some point during the day. And over the weekend, the number of Americans infected with the virus surpassed 500, with cases popping up in Washington and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. At least two members of Congress have announced they will self-quarantine out of an abundance of caution.
While the market selloff came amid growing fears over the economic impact of the virus, it was also fueled at least in part by a plunge in oil prices triggered by Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
That dip, he argued, “and the Fake News, is the reason for the market drop!” Still, he maintained, the drop in oil prices is “Good for the consumer, gasoline prices coming down!”
Those efforts by Trump to minimize the severity of the outbreak came moments after his Health and Human Services secretary declared on TV that “nobody is trying to minimize” what he called “a very serious public health threat.”
HHS Secretary Alex Azar was one of the first Trump officials to appear on TV Monday morning, promising in an interview on Fox News that the Trump administration has “been on this from day one” and defending the availability of testing around the country, which he said was quickly ramping up.
Azar also claimed that “rapid work” is underway on a possible vaccine that “should go to clinical trials very soon” while a therapeutic treatment is already in clinical trials.
While he said he hadn’t spoken to the president about the plunging stock market, he sought to calm fears of a wider economic fallout from the virus’ spread.
“His number one concern across the whole of government along with Vice President Pence is leading the public health preparedness and response effort here,” Azar said. “Our economic team will work on economic aspects of this and President Trump having delivered the best economy in modern history has the tools and knows the tools to keep this economy going but his first focus is public health.”
As the president was beginning his day Monday, a church back home in Washington announced it would temporarily close after its rector tested positive for the virus. Further up the East Coast, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the head of The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a major transportation hub, had also tested positive for the virus.
In the mid-morning, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham rapped the media, shooting down reports that the White House had issued guidance instructing staff to limit in-person interactions and meetings as “completely false.”
While we have asked all Americans to exercise common-sense hygiene measures, we are conducting business as usual. I want to remind the media once again to be responsible with all reporting,” she said in a statement. White House press pool reports noted that Trump defied advice from health officials by shaking hands with supporters and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis upon his arrival in Orlando for the day’s events.