UPDATE: Trump denies he slowed down coronavirus testing
President Trump on Monday denied directing officials to slow down COVID-19 testing to make it look like the U.S. had fewer cases as White House officials spent the day defending him saying he had over the weekend.
Trump has been blaming rising numbers of coronavirus cases in the U.S. on increased testing, arguing the country has been doing “too good a job.”
Trump was asked in multiple interviews on Monday whether he had told his administration to ease up on testing.
“No. But I think we put ourselves at a disadvantage,” Trump told Christian Broadcast Network, saying widespread testing “makes us in a way look bad, but actually we’re doing the right thing.”
In a separate interview with Scripps News, Trump mused that if the U.S. did slow down testing, “we wouldn’t show nearly as many cases.”
Asked again if he had asked to slow testing down, he replied: “Frankly I think we’re way ahead of ourselves if you want to know the truth. We’ve done too good a job, because every time we go out with 25 million tests, you’re going to find more people so then they say ‘oh, we have more cases in the United States.’ The reason we have more cases [is] because we do more testing than any other country by far.”
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 generated outrage this weekend when he said at his first campaign rally in months that he told staff to “slow the testing down, please.”
Trump aides later said his comments were a joke.
“It was a comment that he made in jest,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Monday. “It was a comment that he made in passing, specifically with regard to the media coverage and pointing out the fact that the media acknowledges that we have more cases because where you test more people you find more cases.”
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro had asserted on Sunday that the remark was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek.”
The president has consistently said he believes widespread testing to be overrated and problematic because it leads to higher case counts.
COVID-19 testing was scarce in the early days of the pandemic but availability improved significantly as commercial labs became involved in the effort.
The U.S. has now completed more than 25 million tests, including nearly 2.3 million positive results.
Trump has called for speedy reopening efforts to try to revive the U.S. economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic. On Monday, the White House moved to scale back its own temperature screenings for those entering the complex as Washington, D.C., proceeds to phase two of its reopening.
Democrats panned Trump’s comments as both concerning and insensitive.
“The President’s efforts to slow down desperately needed testing to hide the true extent of the virus mean more Americans will lose their lives,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
Public health experts argue the U.S. needs to do more, not less, testing in the coming months as it prepares for a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall.
During a teleconference with the nation’s governors on Monday, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) told Vice President Pence that the comments, which Pence dismissed as just a passing remark, were not helpful.
Officials continued to attribute the rise in cases to increased testing, pointing particularly to an increase in young people now testing positive, according to a source on the call.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) at one point said because bars are open again and summer sports are starting, younger people are getting tested more. And Deborah Birx, a physician and leading member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said the original government playbook didn’t include such high levels of asymptomatic individuals.
“Pence was literally congratulating governors who are opening up more things,” the person said.
Following Trump’s comments at the rally, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, said the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has yet to spend $14 billion of the $25 billion appropriated by Congress to improve access to testing and contact tracing.
“While it has been months since these funds were first appropriated, the Administration has failed to disburse significant amounts of this funding, leaving communities without the resources they need to address the significant challenges presented by the virus,” Schumer and Murray wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
“This administration will put our country at grave risk if it tries to declare an early victory, leave lifesaving work undone, and leave resources our communities desperately need sitting untouched.”
— Updated at 1:46 p.m.
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