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Trump names Pence to lead coronavirus response

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE on Wednesday announced that Vice President Pence would lead the administration’s coronavirus response, seeking to bolster public confidence after days of mixed messages from top officials.

Trump’s comments in the White House briefing room Wednesday sought to change the course on what Democrats said was an inadequate response to the coronavirus, which has spread quickly across the globe.

“The number one priority from our standpoint is the health and safety of the American people,” said Trump, who was flanked by Pence and members of the White House’s coronavirus task force.

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“We are ready to adapt if we have to, as the disease spreads, if it spreads,” Trump said. “We’re very, very ready for this.”

Yet even as he sought to bolster confidence in his administration’s response, the president contradicted officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who told lawmakers and reporters on Tuesday that the spread of the disease in the U.S. is inevitable.

“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Trump said. “It could be at a very small level.”

Trump did repeatedly praise his team, including those at the CDC, saying they all wanted to protect the country.

“Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared, we have the best people in the world. … It’s going to be very well under control,” Trump said.

The CDC’s Anne Schuchat said there will be more cases, and urged the public to be prepared.

“The trajectory of what we’re looking at over the weeks and months ahead is very uncertain,” she said.

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She said now was the perfect time for businesses, universities and schools to “look at their pandemic preparedness plans, dust them off and make sure that they’re ready.”

Pence said his role would be to work with the task force to bring the “best options for action” to the president and to “see to the safety and well-being and health of the American people.”

Trump is trying to balance a legitimate public health emergency while projecting confidence that his administration has things under control, in part to calm the stock markets.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen more than 2,000 points this week over fears related to the virus.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern that the administration’s $2.5 billion emergency funding request is too low, but there’s not yet agreement on just how much is needed.

Trump said Wednesday he would be happy to take however much money Congress decides to give him.

He also accused Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Overnight Health Care: CDC expands definition of 'close contact' after COVID-19 report | GOP coronavirus bill blocked in Senate | OxyContin maker agrees to B settlement with Trump administration MORE (D-Calif.) of trying to score political points by criticizing his administration’s response.

“I think Speaker Pelosi is incompetent,” he said.

“All they’re trying to do is get a political advantage. This isn’t about political advantage. We’re all trying to do the right thing. They shouldn’t be saying, ‘this is terrible. President Trump isn’t asking for enough money.’ How stupid a thing to say. If they want to give us more money that’s okay we’ll take more money.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTrump casts doubt on hopes for quick stimulus deal after aides expressed optimism Schumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-N.Y.) publicly called for $8.5 billion in emergency funding Wednesday, urging Congress to “act swiftly” as cases of the coronavirus increase abroad.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments McCarthy: 'I would think I already have the votes' to remain as House GOP leader Conservatives seize on New York Post story to push Section 230 reform MORE (R-Calif.) said the package could be about $4 billion, while Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroCongress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act Century of the Woman: The Fight for Equal Pay Female lawmakers, officials call for more women at all levels of government to improve equity MORE (D-Conn.), a key appropriator, said the total would likely be higher than that.

A House Democratic aide said bipartisan, bicameral meetings started Wednesday to work out the details of the supplemental.

Trump’s decision to elevate Pence to lead the response came after the administration spent much of Wednesday debating whether a czar was needed.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar spent Wednesday telling lawmakers that he was in charge of the response, and there was no need to appoint an additional czar to lead the efforts.

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“I serve as the lead on this … I work on a daily basis with the chief of staff and the president. So if there’s any deconflicting between agencies that needs to happen, it can happen there,” Azar told a House panel.

But calls from inside and outside Congress for greater coordination have grown in recent days.

Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGette20 years later, the FDA must lift restrictions on medication abortion care Overnight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training Democrats question EPA postponement of environmental inequality training MORE (D-Colo.) pointed to reports that the State Department overruled the CDC when it decided to transport infected passengers back to the U.S. from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

“There needs to be someone who can overrule Homeland Security and State, who can make these decisions for the American public based on public health,” she said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, also endorsed the idea of a coronavirus czar Wednesday afternoon.

“At this critical time, we need clear accountability and data-based guidance so the public and American businesses can take the proper precautions to mitigate the impact. We encourage Congress and the administration to provide all necessary support to contain the spread of the virus,” CEO Thomas Donohue said.

 

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The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Wednesday that for the first time since the outbreak began in December, more new cases were being reported outside of China than in it.

In the past 24 hours, four countries have reported their first cases of the coronavirus, and the numbers of confirmed cases are growing in European countries including Italy. 

Azar told lawmakers an additional case was confirmed in the U.S. on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases to 60, including 42 individuals who were repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. 

A top CDC official on Tuesday seemed to indicate an outbreak was imminent. 

“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Azar tried to assure members of Congress in two separate hearings Wednesday that the administration was prepared for an outbreak. 

But he faced blistering attacks from Democrats, who alleged a lack of transparency and conflicting messages from the administration, combined with a meager request for emergency funding, prove it isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously. 

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“The White House has got to get a coherent message right now,” said Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Barrett touts independence to sidestep confirmation questions Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Poll shows Biden leading Trump, tight House race in key Nebraska district MORE (D-Wis.), a member of the House Appropriations health subcommittee, which heard from Azar on Wednesday. 

“The Cabinet secretaries are all over the board on this. I just feel like they’re more worried about the stock market than health issues, and I didn’t feel any better leaving the hearing this morning,” Pocan said. 

The administration has already begun transferring $136 million in funding from other health programs to pay for portions of the coronavirus response that need immediate attention, such as the production of masks for medical workers. 

That was met with resistance by Democrats, who were particularly upset by the $37 million in cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income Americans pay their utility bills. 

"[That] is reprogramming we believe undermines health care protections for the American people. ... It's out of one pocket, into the other. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, we think, is not a good policy," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Hoyer called the administration's response to the virus "inadequate" and hammered Trump for the unusual number of vacancies atop some of the very health agencies now scrambling to address the crisis. 

Republicans defended Trump and accused Democrats of playing politics with a public health crisis. 

“We just see people trying to turn something that shouldn't be political at all into a political issue, and that said, the president has got a lot to be proud of here,” said Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump's erratic tweets upend stimulus talks; COVID-19 spreads in White House Republican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Bottom line MORE (Okla.), a top GOP appropriator. “I've been working on this issue with my colleagues on both sides the aisle for five years. We're better prepared than anybody else.”

Morgan Chalfant, Brett Samuels and Peter Sullivan contributed.