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Trump downplays coronavirus outbreak calling risk ‘low’ in press conference

John T Bennett
Donald Trump and Mike Pence at a news conference to discuss the US government's response to the coronavirus crisis: REUTERS

Donald Trump sought to downplay the possibility of a widespread outbreak of the Coronavirus inside the United States, calling the risk “low” and breaking harshly with his top health officials who had signaled the virus inevitably would reach US soil.

"This ends. This is going to end," the president said. "Hopefully sooner rather than later."

He sharply broke with what top US health officials said on Tuesday when they said it is a matter of when the virus arrives in the United States.

"No, I dont think it's inevitable. It probably will, It possibly will," he said. "This will end. ... Nothing's inevitable."

Mr Trump described his administration as "very, very ready" to deal with the virus, touting a Johns Hopkins University study of countries best prepared to deal with a pandemic. The United States was ranked first, Mr Trump noted, and noted none of the 15 known American cases have pushed those victims towards death. He said all 15 have "fully recovered" or are expected to do so.

He did not announce he is naming a czar to oversee the federal government's anti-virus efforts. But he did say "we're bringing in a specialist" who is a State Department employee without naming that person or describing just what he or she will be doing. And he put Vice President Mike Pence "in charge" of the government's efforts, saying his experiences as governor of Indiana on health issues make him qualified to take the lead.

He did, however, strike a bipartisan tone about funding to fight the Coronavirus. He has pitched a $2.5b emergency funding package, but Senate and House Democrats want as much as $8.5b in emergency dollars to fight it.

"If they want to do more, we'll do more. We don't want to spend too much because we think we've kept it down to a minimum," he said, again downplaying the virus's expected impact inside the US while touting what he and his aides already have done.

Previous presidents have used crises to try to bring the country together, urging them to listen to local, state and federal officials by heeding their warnings and following their preparedness recommendations.

Not Mr Trump, other than signaling he's open to more than just a $2.5b emergency spending package. The response he agrees with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has said Democrats and other Trump critics have tried to "weaponize" the issue to hurt him politically.

Trump also slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for criticising his response.

"I think she's incompetent. She's not leading the country," Mr Trump said. "She's trying to create a panic. And there's no reason to panic. ... All they're trying to do is get a political advantage."

He called Ms Pelosi's statement earlier in the day that he is requesting too little to deal with the virus "stupid."

Asked by a reporter about the recent stock market slide over Coronavirus worries, Mr Trump shifted blame to Democratic presidential candidates' debates.

"I think the stock market will recover, our consumer is very, very strong," he contended, adding later that the virus had helped bring down markets but those candidates have been "making fools of themseleves" has frieghtened Wall Street. He used the press conferece to predict he will "win by a lot in November." Together, the remarks show his bid to secure a second term is never far from his mind – even during a potential health crisis.

At the top of his press conference, Mr Trump credited moves he's made to shut down flights from countries with a large number of Coronavirus cases as helping prevent, so far, an outbreak in the US. He noted he was criticised for doing so, alluding to his critics as being too quick to judge his decision.

On Wednesday morning, the president blamed the media and Democrats, tweeting that the former is "doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible."

"Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!" he claimed even as his top health officials continued to contend it is only a matter of time before the virus hits on American soil.

The president opted to have his own news conference after growing frustrated with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials for saying in a Tuesday briefing that the virus definitely would arrive in the United States rather than explaining preparedness plans.

He also confirmed the administration has plans in place to quarantine areas as large as cities, if there is an outbreak. He said he doubts such measures will be needed, saying "we're looking at worst-case scenarios."

"I don't think we'll ever be anywhere near that," Mr Trump said, predicting Americans will "have to remain a little bit flexible" on summer travel plans. He said Americans "will be staying here" on their summer vacations and spending money domestically, indirectly making a point that could boost his re-election campaign.

Mr Trump decided against using his rare appearance in the James Brady Briefing Room to name one official to act as a so-called Coronavirus czar. After a report the president was mulling just that earlier in the day, his Department of Health and Human Services secretary told a House committee the president had moved away from the idea.

"I don't anticipate one," Alex Azar said on Capitol Hill, claiming the Trump administration's efforts so far are "working extremely well."

"If it doesn't or there's a need for a change ... that would be for the president to decide," he added as White House aides, as Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere did a tweet, tried to knock down the report.

"The President took decisive action by creating the Coronavirus Virus Task Force a month ago and is pleased with the leadership of @SecAzar to protect the public health," Mr Deere tweeted.

With that, the White House put ample responsibility – and pressure – on Mr Azar to head off a widespread outbreak.

During the White House briefing, Mr Azar said there will be more cases inside the United States as Mr Trump stood over his right shoulder – but he stressed preparedness steps Americans should take.

"Our containment strategy is working," Mr Azar said from the White House podium that largely goes unused under Mr Trump, who shut down daily press briefings.

Anne Schuchat, CDC's principal deputy director, said the virus is spread primarily via coughing and sneezing, urging Americans to wash their hands and take other traditional sanitary practices.

As seems par for the Trump course, he made an odd claim during the rare press conference, defending his proposed double-digit budget cut to CDC's fiscal 2020 spending bill because "we can build up fast." He was referring to hiring doctors to work for the federal agency – but federal hiring is notoriously cumbersome.

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