The president told the meager audience who attended his rally in Tulsa on Saturday night that he gave an order to slow testing for coronavirus. Ever since, his staff have downplayed Trump’s claim by calling it a joke. But on Monday, the president himself refused to back down from the order and instead avoided the question put to him twice during an interview.
With the U.S. coronavirus death toll at 122,000 and nearly half of the states reporting a rise in cases, Trump seems to think by playing a game of confusion he might escape some blame for his administration’s incompetent handling of the virus come election time.
When Scripps reporter Joe St. George asked Trump on Monday about his order to “slow the testing,” the president avoided the topic and instead went with an oft-repeated talking point, saying, “We do more testing than any other country by far.”
When St. George followed-up and asked again, Trump chose not to deny giving the directive, but then the president paused and said, “If [the testing] did slow down, frankly, I think we’re way ahead of ourselves. If you want to know the truth, we’ve done too good a job.”
VIDEO: Just asked President Trump if he actually ordered testing to be slowed down. He said in his Saturday speech he did. He didn't answer the direct question. pic.twitter.com/aDKGu6F2Ok
— Joe St. George (@JoeStGeorge) June 22, 2020
Trump’s reply was a far cry from how his surrogates have responded when asked about the president’s comments. On Sunday, White House adviser Peter Navarro bristled at the thought of Trump being serious, saying it was obvious that he was joking. Navarro tried to give the impression that the controversy was concocted by the media, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper repeatedly, “Please, c’mon now. You know it was tongue in cheek. That’s news for ya,” adding, “Let’s talk about some serious issues.”
And on Monday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany also struck a different tone than the president by declaratively stating that Trump made the comments “in jest” and “in passing.” McEnany went on to make a convoluted argument about how Trump actually used his “slow the testing” statement as some sort of media critique.
Kayleigh McEnany ties herself into knots to defend Trump’s comments about slowing down coronavirus testing pic.twitter.com/1TLxFOMXaf
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 22, 2020
But Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN on Sunday that he doesn’t believe the president was joking.
“It’s actually very consistent with the policy we’ve been seeing coming out of the White House — an effort to not put too much time and effort into ramping up testing,” Jha said. “This is unfortunately not a joke. It’s led to more than 100,000 Americans having died, largely because we have not built up the testing infrastructure that our country needs.”
On Sunday, leading Democrats sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking what has become of the nearly $14 billion of funding from the coronavirus relief bill that passed in April. According to NBC News, Congress appropriated a total of $25 billion for the effort, but more than $8 billion for testing and contact tracing has not been distributed. Additionally, more than $2 billion for testing for the uninsured and $4 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to be awarded.
“We call on you to immediately disburse the remainder of the $25 billion in funds to ramp up testing and contact tracing capacity, as well as to make sure providers are aware of and able to easily access the $2 billion that Congress appropriated to provide testing for the uninsured,” the letter read.
Joe Biden’s Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield told Fox News on Monday that she believes the president has purposely slowed testing.
“It was clear he was not joking,” Bedingfield said. “It’s very clear that this president has not taken this virus seriously from the outset.”
— Peter Wade 🤦♂️ (@brooklynmutt) June 22, 2020
Again and again, the president has spoken about testing in a selfish way, about how it affects his reelection chances, calling testing “a double-edged sword.” It is beyond comprehension that Trump has possibly concluded it’s OK to be joking about a pandemic that has left more than 120,000 Americans dead or, even worse, that he believes it would help his campaign if he intentionally slowed a process that would save lives. But here we are.