WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump refused to accept any responsibility for the slow rate of coronavirus testing in the United States, saying on Friday that he was "given a set of circumstances" that wasn't meant for the high numbers of potential COVID-19 infections.
"What we've done, and one of the reasons people are respecting what we've done, is we've gotten it done very early, and we've also kept a lot of people out," Trump said during a press conference in the Rose Garden.
During the briefing, NBC's Kristen Welker asked Trump whether he took responsibility for the testing lag, which one member of his own task force called "a failing."
"No, I don't take responsibility at all. Because we were given a — a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn't meant for this kind of — an event with the kind of numbers that we're talking about," Trump responded.
In reality, America's low rate of COVID-19 testing has drawn criticism from health experts around the world, who say the slow rate of testing obscures the actual rate of infection in the United States, which is likely far higher than tests have so far confirmed.
During the earliest stages of the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention distributed faulty tests to state and local health departments. Once the flawed tests were discovered and discarded, bureaucratic red tape held up the process of granting exemptions to private labs to make their own tests.
As criticism of the Trump administration's coronavirus testing protocol has intensified, and testing in other countries such as South Korea has outpaced the U.S. by orders of magnitude, Trump has sought to shift the blame onto his predecessor, Barack Obama.
On Friday, asked about testing rates, Trump brought up the example of the 2009 swine flu, or H1N1 epidemic, in order to criticize Obama and boast of his success.
"If you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this, they didn't do testing like this, and they lost approximately 14,000 people. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late," Trump said.
Former Obama administration official Ron Klain, who managed the 2014 Ebola outbreak, disputed Trump's assessment. "The Obama administration tested 1 million people for H1N1 in the first month after the first US diagnosed case," Klain tweeted on Thursday. "The first US coronavirus case was 50+ days ago. And we haven't event tested 10,000 people yet."
This is not the first time Trump has attacked Obama's outbreak response as inadequate, an argument that has political implications as Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, appears increasingly likely to be Trump's 2020 Democratic opponent.
"The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we're doing, and we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion," Trump said at a White House meeting with airline executives in early March.
"That was a decision we disagreed with. I don't think we would have made it, but for some reason it was made. But we've undone that decision."
Yet experts and laboratory trade organizations say there was no "decision," and they don't know what Trump is referring to.
"We aren't sure what rule is being referenced," Michelle Forman, a spokeswoman for the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told The Washington Post in early March.
"To our knowledge, there were some discussions about laboratory developed test rules but nothing was ever put into place. So we are not aware of anything that changed how LDTs are regulated."
Moreover, the rules that govern how testing labs respond to emergencies aren't Obama-era rules at all --- they're George W. Bush-era rules, part of his administration's post-9/11 counterterrorism policy.
In 2004, Bush signed into law the Project BioShield Act, which permitted the FDA to issue Emergency Use Authorizations to labs during public health crises. If a lab had a new treatment or test that seemed promising, the FDA would fast-track its approval process.
But these details do not appear to have hampered Trump.
On Friday, as confirmed U.S. cases topped 1,700, the president again zeroed in on what he said was "a testing problem" that Obama had failed to fix.
"For decades the CDC looked at, and studied, its testing system, but did nothing about it," Trump tweeted early Friday morning. "It would always be inadequate and slow for a large scale pandemic, but a pandemic would never happen, they hoped. President Obama made changes that only complicated things further," Trump tweeted.
"Their response to H1N1 Swine Flu was a full scale disaster, with thousands dying, and nothing meaningful done to fix the testing problem, until now. The changes have been made and testing will soon happen on a very large scale basis. All Red Tape has been cut, ready to go!" Trump said.
Trump didn't specify what "changes" Obama made. According to experts, there weren't any.