Washington CNN  — 

A week after its chaotic and politicized start to the battle against coronavirus, a White House task force is projecting order and coherence amid a crisis that could weigh on the economy and ultimately President Donald Trump’s electoral fate.

Vice President Mike Pence, flanked by scientists and public health experts rather than political spinners, is briefing lawmakers and the press and even privately admitting early missteps. He’s also publicly tackling the most imminent issues – after complaints about his closed briefing on Tuesday – responding Wednesday to the elevated danger the disease poses to the elderly, for instance.

But the administration has still not explained why Washington has been so slow to distribute testing kits in bulk and has dragged its feet on removing restrictions for who can conduct diagnosis. And Pence’s efforts, which are winning qualified praise from some Capitol Hill Democrats, risk being undermined by the President’s inflammatory and inaccurate personal commentary on the virus, which risk further undermining public trust in his leadership at a moment of national emergency.

Trump falsely blamed former President Barack Obama on Wednesday for delays in testing for a disease that emerged in China several months ago, giving the US ample time to prepare. He cited a “hunch” in disputing the expert view of the World Health Organization’s director-general, who said this week that the global mortality rate for the virus is 3.4%. And Trump’s upbeat and misleading rhetoric on the economic impact of the crisis also flies in the face of the facts that key US industries – especially in the travel sector – are now experiencing real consequences from the outbreak.

And with the virus spreading – to more than 150 US cases with 11 deaths in 13 states – there is a strong sense that the White House is now facing only a fraction of the challenge that may soon hit.

Pence is trying to keep American life and commerce moving while delivering hints that the administration is prepared should things could get worse and more stringent mitigation measures might be needed.

He touted a “busy and productive” day at the White House as he appeared for a televised briefing, stressing that the risk to Americans of contracting the coronavirus “remains low.”

Trump met airline executives at the White House and assured Americans it was safe to fly in his latest apparent effort to limit the damage to the economy from the spread of the virus.

“At this moment we think we have it very much in hand,” the President said. His optimism hardly reflected the true state of affairs in the industry. United Airlines, for instance, said it would cut domestic flights by 10% and international ones by 20%.

Pence vows to fix the testing backlog

Pence SOTU
Pence: More coronavirus deaths in US 'possible'
03:40 - Source: CNN

Pence was criticized by Democrats when he was named last week as the head of Trump’s task force, not least for his performance in dealing with an HIV epidemic when he was governor of Indiana.

But in his first week on the job, and apart from his ritual and repeated praise of Trump, he has done less to politicize the White House response than his boss.

In a briefing on Wednesday, he vowed to deal with complaints from health care providers and state and local authorities that they lack sufficient testing capacity to check the virus’s spread.

He said 1.5 million testing kits were on their way to health care providers and university labs and other locations. And he assured Americans that the administration had acted to make tests available for free on private health plans, Medicare and Medicaid.

Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, told reporters that by the end of the week capacity will be in place to perform 1 million tests.

Another member of Trump’s task force, Deborah Birx, said new data from Italy and South Korea was prompting the government to take further steps to shield the most at-risk patients – the elderly. She also noted that there was a very low risk of death for those under 30.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, announced directives for hospitals on triaging patients with coronavirus symptoms, offering information for nursing homes about limiting visitors and monitoring staff and mandating new procedures on oversight of nursing homes.

Pence will head to Washington state on Thursday to the US epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and he plans to hold a meeting with the cruise ship industry on Saturday. The announcement came as it emerged that a vessel, the Grand Princess, is off the coast of San Francisco with a number of passengers and crew members complaining of coronavirus symptoms. A small cluster of coronavirus cases were traced to the ship from a previous voyage, Princess Cruises said in a statement.

As the effort to ramp up the response widens, Congress reached agreement Wednesday to send the White House an $8.3 billion funding package, plugging a gap in the White House’s earlier unpreparedness following an initial request that was about a quarter of that size.

Pence admits ‘mistakes’

The vice president briefed lawmakers on the government’s response to the virus on Wednesday.

Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said the vice president admitted in a meeting with House Democrats to “some mistakes made early in the process” related to testing.

Speaking on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront,” Democratic Rep. Lou Correa of California, who is from a district where the virus has been discovered, also praised Pence.

“I am glad Vice President Pence was there to say ‘I am taking control,’ surrounded by scientists and health care officials – that’s what you are supposed to do,” he said.

But Correa had harsher words for Trump, suggesting that he was falling short of the standards of leadership expected from a President in a time of crisis.

“Don’t blame Obama. Don’t say it’s a Democratic hoax. Address it and call it for what it is – this is the new norm in the United States,” he added.

Trump’s tendency to muddle the message and exploit every situation for personal political gain reared its head yet again on Wednesday when he blamed his predecessor for the tardy dispatch of testing kits.

“The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing,” Trump said Wednesday during on a meeting addressing the coronavirus outbreak.

“And we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more rapid and accurate fashion,” the President said, characteristically looking for someone else to blame when his leadership is criticized. Experts said his claim was false – and a source close to the coronavirus task force told CNN’s Jim Acosta it’s not clear where Trump got his information.

In many ways, Trump is in an unusual position. His usual armory of political weapons – disinformation, withering attacks on opponents and institutions that check his power, and a repeated habit of ignoring facts – are useless in fighting an epidemic.

And as seesawing stock markets, reverberations in the worlds of international business and travel, and rising death and infection rates show, the White House remains deeply vulnerable to events it cannot control.

News of airlines cutting capacity, warnings of global slowdowns in economic growth and even the postponement of the release of the new James Bond film underlined how the virus could harm the economy. And from a political perspective, Trump can ill afford any kind of slowdown, as he hopes to ride job growth and solid economic fundamentals to reelection in November – in a campaign that would showcase any glaring White House missteps.