President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the White House will phase out its coronavirus task force and likely replace it with a group focused on "reopening" the U.S. economy.
When asked why he was winding down the group, even as health experts warn of a recurrence in cases later this year, Trump said, "Well, because we can't keep our country closed for the next five years."
If a recurrence does happen, "It'll be a flame," Trump said at a roundtable event in Phoenix, Arizona, "and we'll put the flame out."
The gradual phaseout of the group would come as states begin relaxing their strict social distancing measures — even as some regions see an uptick in Covid-19 cases.
Vice President Mike Pence, who oversees the task force, confirmed in a meeting with reporters Tuesday that the administration is having conversations about transitioning the coronavirus response to other federal agencies.
"We've already begun to talk about a transition plan with FEMA," said Pence, who suggested the wind-down is "all a reflection of the tremendous progress we've made as a country."
The administration is looking at starting that transition as soon as late May, Pence said.
"I think we're starting to look at the Memorial Day window, early June window as a time when we could begin to transition back to having our agencies begin to manage — begin to manage our national response in a more traditional manner," the vice president said.
Trump said at the roundtable Tuesday afternoon: "Mike Pence and the task force have done a great job, but we're now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening, and we'll have a different group probably set up for that."
The task force, which includes response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, has already been moved out of the spotlight. On-camera press briefings with the task force, once a near-daily occurrence, have not been held since April 24, and a source told CNBC that the operation has been meeting less frequently.
But Fauci told CBS in an interview Tuesday afternoon that the task force is not winding down.
"That's not true, I've been in every task force meeting, and that's not what they are doing," Fauci said, CBS reported.
The New York Times first reported earlier Tuesday that the task force would be wound down in the weeks ahead, and that it may never be formally disbanded. It is unclear if any other group might replace the current task force.
Pence advisor Olivia Troye and other top White House staff have told senior officials involved in the group to expect it to wind down within weeks, the Times reported.
With the U.S. economy tanking amid the outbreak, President Donald Trump has expressed an eagerness for governors to begin the process of "reopening" their states by lifting some of the restrictions designed to try to slow the spread of the disease.
A self-described cheerleader for the country amid the pandemic, Trump has predicted a sweeping economic rebound by the end of the year, when he is up for reelection. "We'll open it up and I think your fourth quarter is going to be very good," Trump said in a New York Post interview published Tuesday morning.
But experts say that new Covid-19 infections and deaths could start to rise as states reopen for business.
More than 1.1 million cases and at least 70,115 deaths from the coronavirus have been confirmed in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Before the task force's daily press events at the White House were apparently scrapped, Trump had assumed a starring role in the briefings, which became marked by his lengthy and often combative exchanges with reporters.
Critics had accused Trump of co-opting the briefings and turning them into de facto reelection campaign events, since social distancing measures prevented him from staging the massive rallies that he previously held on the campaign trail. Even some of Trump's allies reportedly questioned whether his extended appearances were doing more harm than good.
Trump's use of the briefings appeared to come to an abrupt end on April 23 when, in apparently off-the-cuff remarks, he speculated about whether injecting disinfectants could work as a treatment for the virus.
"I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning," Trump said. "Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that."
Trump tried to walk back the remarks the following day, claiming he was being "sarcastic." The president took no questions at the briefing later that evening. No on-camera press briefings with the task force have been scheduled since.