Trump puts Pence in charge of US coronavirus response

President Donald Trump holds a press conference to discuss the coronavirus with officials from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the US government response to the novel coronavirus, amid growing criticism of the White House’s handling of the outbreak.

At a wide-ranging White House news conference, the President defended the White House’s response, stressing the administration’s ongoing efforts and resources devoted to combat the virus.

“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said.

Trump also did not close the door to Senate Democrats’ call for over $8 billion in emergency funding for anti-coronavirus efforts.

“We’ll spend whatever is appropriate. Hopefully we won’t have to spend so much because we really think that we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum,” Trump said.

The President returned from India to see his administration on the defensive over his administration’s handling of the coronavirus, as Cabinet officials were grilled in Congress and Democrats panned the White House’s budget request to fight the virus.

The stock market decline has especially exacerbated Trump’s rising concerns over how to stem the outbreak of the coronavirus even though he has publicly declared the virus to be “very much under control in the USA,” multiple people tell CNN.

Investors are growing concerned about the economic impact of the coronavirus, as is the President, whose reelection campaign is banking on a strong economy.

Trump has been publicly downplaying the novel coronavirus’ effects, because he thinks doing otherwise could cause further panic in the markets — and he’s been frustrated with officials issuing warnings about the unknowns of the virus’s spread. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is one aide who encouraged Trump to downplay the latest developments, at least publicly, one person says.

On Tuesday, one of the top officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans that health experts foresee the coronavirus that has killed thousands abroad spreading in the US.

“We expect we will see community spread in this country,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

As CNN previously reported, Trump has been privately lashing out at officials for coronavirus-related decisions. His instinct has been to seal off the US from those testing positive, even Americans, though he acknowledged at a press conference in India that allowing them back into the US was the right thing to do.

On Wednesday, Trump said “right now it’s not the right time” to add travel restrictions from other countries including South Korea and Italy, which have had a large number of coronavirus cases.

Trump said Wednesday that the Americans who have been diagnosed with the virus are doing well.

“Of the 15 people, … eight of them have returned to their homes, to stay at their homes until they’re fully recovered. One is in the hospital. And five have fully recovered. And one we think is in pretty good shape,” Trump said.

Unhappy with administration’s response

The appointment of Pence came after the White House denied it was considering appointing a czar to oversee the administration’s response outbreak.

Trump said Pence would not be a “czar,” but stressed the vice president will be coordinating the efforts.

“Mike will be working with the professionals, doctors and everybody else that is working. The team is brilliant. I spent a lot of time with the team the last couple weeks,” the President said. “But they are brilliant and we’re doing really well and Mike is going to be in charge and Mike will report back to me. But he has a certain talent for this.”

According to administration sources, Trump has been displeased with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — for failing to keep him updated on crucial decisions concerning the virus.

Lawmakers have also called on Trump to appoint someone to oversee the response, which came up during a clash over the administration’s request for more coronavirus funding. Some White House officials accused HHS of requesting disproportionate amounts of money to cover up what one official described as Azar’s “mismanagement.” Azar did appear at Wednesday evening’s news conference.

Trump’s return to Washington also corresponds with the start of a potential federal funding fight to respond to the virus.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, is expected to request $8.5 billion to combat the coronavirus, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide. That’s a dramatic jump from the $2.5 billion in total funding and only $1.25 billion in new funding the White House has proposed.

Travel restrictions under consideration

Earlier this month, the US began implementing travel restrictions on foreign nationals who had visited China and US citizens who have been near the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China’s Hubei province. Before Trump announced the China restrictions, there was a debate inside the White House about the logistics of applying such a ban.

And behind the scenes, Trump is pushing for more travel restrictions on countries where the virus is spreading to, administration officials tell CNN, but so far, no decisions have been made.

Administration officials have been privately weighing imposing additional travel bans similar to the one the US has already imposed with regard to foreigners who have been in China, a senior administration official and sources close to the White House said.

“If it gets to the point where we need to do that, we will,” a senior administration official said.

The administration increased the travel advisory warning for Japan and South Korea earlier this week, so those two countries would be likely targets for increased travel restrictions.

There have been more than 80,000 cases of coronavirus globally and the death toll has risen to more than 2,700, the majority in mainland China.

The US has 60 confirmed cases, US health officials said Tuesday, a number that is expected to grow.

Despite the spread of the virus, World Health Organization officials are not yet calling this a pandemic, though they’re close.

In January, the WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”

This story has been updated with comments from President Trump’s news conference.

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