Politics

Mixed White House messaging on coronavirus sparks internal frustration

Shannon Pettypiece, Hallie Jackson, and Monica Alba
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (L) speaks next to US President Donald Trump during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 6, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
JIM WATSON

PALM BEACH, Fla. — White House officials are growing increasingly frustrated at what they see as President Donald Trump's consistent bids to downplay the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, a tendency that has led to a clash in messaging with public health officials.

Those mixed signals were on display Sunday as the top infectious disease doctor at the National Institutes of Health, Anthony Fauci, warned the elderly and medically vulnerable to avoid large crowds and long trips or cruises and Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the public to be prepared for more cases and deaths.

But the message Sunday morning from Trump on Twitter was praise for his administration's response, which he called a "perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan," and blame for the media, which he said was "doing everything possible to make us look bad."

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The president also told reporters Saturday night that he wouldn't be postponing his political rallies, which can attract upward of 15,000 attendees, and wasn't concerned about the virus getting closer to the White House.

Multiple sources familiar with the discussions acknowledged that Trump is simply not on the same wavelength as the rest of his team, but they said there isn't much they can do to change his public tone. Trump has been advised by some close to him to let public health officials, rather than the politicians, take a more forward-facing role, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But a person close to the White House said Trump thinks it helps him politically to keep doing what he has been doing.

That has left aides feeling discouraged over their efforts to get out a more comprehensive message about what needs to be done to prepare the public for likely hardships and major changes to their daily lives that could be ahead, said one White House official.

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Trump consistently downplayed the risk from the virus, which has now killed 22 people in the U.S., and questioned the authority of some public health experts. When the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. stood at 15 last month, he told reporters that the number would soon be going to zero. He also predicted that the virus would be gone by April, although the reported cases have only been accelerating across the globe.

In public, Trump's other top deputies have mirrored their boss's tone. On Friday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told reporters that the virus is "being contained." The same day, top economic adviser Larry Kudlow said that the virus "looks relatively contained" and that "the vast majority of Americans are not at risk for this virus."

Stephen Hahn commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, briefed reporters Saturday alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at the White House. Both officials couldn't say how many people have been tested in the U.S., but they said 48 states now had the ability to use the diagnostic testing.

Asked why the president and the vice president have been on different pages in public remarks when it comes to the availability of public testing, Azar said Trump was using "shorthand" when he suggested that anyone who wants a test can get one.

"What he meant to say is we're not in the way of that," Azar said. "And he knows the numbers. We brief him daily on these numbers."

Trump essentially acknowledged that there was a political consideration to his decision-making process on the virus Friday when he said he didn't want passengers being held on a cruise ship off California to be brought back into the U.S. because he believed the move would make the number of cases appear to spike.

"I like the numbers being where they are," Trump said. "I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault. And it wasn't the fault of the people on the ship either, OK? It wasn't their fault either, and they're mostly Americans. So I can live either way with it. I'd rather have them stay on, personally."

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But with testing expected to increase — the White House says it will have millions of tests available this week compared to numbers in the low thousands that have been conducted so far — and with the virus reported in more than half the states so far, the situation is likely to change dramatically, Trump's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned Saturday.

"We may be entering a period of accelerating cases. The country could look very different over next two weeks," Gottlieb tweeted. "We'll get through this, but need to take steps now to limit the scope and impact of virus. There are things we can do now to help ourselves."

A White House official said that is the type of messaging officials believe the administration needs to be getting out.