President Donald Trump is receiving a steady stream of sometimes-conflicting information about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that some aides worry is dampening his ability to effectively communicate the realities and risks of the epidemic.
Some of the information Trump is receiving is viewed by his team as qualified and some of it appears designed to downplay the global crisis, people familiar with the matter said. Like he has throughout his presidency, Trump is hearing from outside friends and allies who don’t necessarily convey the same information he hears from government aides.
The result, multiple officials said privately, is the appearance of disconnect between the President and top officials who are responsible for managing the crisis. Even concerted efforts to streamline and centralize the administration’s messaging have sometimes been foiled by Trump’s own statements.
The breakdown was evident this week amid questions over early testing for the coronavirus, the timeline for a vaccine and the disease’s global death rate. Even the abrupt, albeit momentary, cancellation of Trump’s planned visit to the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta became mired in confusion after Trump undercut the White House’s official explanation by saying an employee had been tested for the virus.
In an effort to ensure the President is receiving updated and accurate information, Vice President Mike Pence — who is leading the administration’s coronavirus response — has made a practice of briefing Trump on the latest about the coronavirus multiple times a day. Pence spent Thursday in Minnesota and Washington State meeting with officials to discuss the epidemic, canceling a campaign swing.
But others, such as members of the President’s family and his extended network of business associates, also have a direct line and are encouraging Trump to offer a rosier picture of the situation than his officials are relaying.
Some people close to the effort said Trump was relying on “wishful thinking” to manage the crisis. One person close to the coronavirus task force said members of the team are biting their tongues on certain information with the opinion that it’s better to work the problem from the inside rather than say something Trump doesn’t like and end up being iced out altogether.
Trump’s tense relationship to his response team
Trump has taken a liking to some of the career experts which form his team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But even some of Fauci’s statements about the severity of the outbreak have concerned some White House officials, who felt they could anger Trump.
Speaking at a CNN town hall on Thursday, Fauci acknowledged that testing for coronavirus got off to “a slow start” in the United States and said there were some “missteps” in the CDC’s testing procedures. He said the problem had been fixed.
His comments came on the back of Pence’s concession there aren’t currently enough testing kits to meet demand.
“We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” Pence told reporters while touring 3M facilities in Minnesota.
Trump, however, has continued to insist his handling of the crisis is without fault, including on the testing issue.
He said during his afternoon tour of the CDC that any American “that needs a test gets a test.”
“They’re there,” the President said. “They have the test, and the tests are beautiful.”
He praised the team working on the coronavirus response: “They’ve done an incredible job.”
But the team of officials isn’t the only group in Trump’s ear. On a daily basis, the President accepts advice from a multitude of people, many of whom are not subject experts. Trump is known to call old friends, Republican lawmakers and former staffers to get their opinion on news of the day.
Speaking on CNBC on Friday, Trump’s chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow offered a far more optimistic view of the outbreak than some officials have presented.
“We don’t actually know what the magnitude of the virus is going to be,” he said. “Although, frankly, so far it looks relatively contained.”
When the President is given advice he disagrees with — even if it comes from someone well versed in the field of discussion — he often seeks outside counsel in hopes of reinforcing his own instincts. In the fourth year of his presidency, aides are well aware of the President’s tactics, and often work around him by calling outside advisers in hopes of catching them before they speak with the President.
A briefly canceled visit to the CDC
When it comes to coronavirus, Trump has often seemed on a different page from health officials in his own government. He has been repeatedly corrected by top health officials on the speed of developing a vaccine, including during a meeting Monday and later after a visit to the National Institutes of Health.
On Friday, confusion persisted over Trump’s planned visit to CDC headquarters. Hours before the White House released a schedule without the visit listed, Pence previewed the stop to reporters, saying Trump planned to sign a new coronavirus funding measure there.
Later, the White House said Trump would not visit because “the President does not want to interfere with the CDC’s mission to protect the health and welfare of their people and the agency.”
But Trump himself undercut the explanation, telling reporters he wasn’t visiting because of a potential case of coronavirus on site.
“They’ve tested the person very fully and it was a negative test. I may be going they’re going to see if they can turn it around with Secret Service,” Trump said. Later, the White House announced the trip was back on.
The episode only underscored the White House’s desire to maintain a sense of calm surrounding coronavirus. Trump has received entreaties from some business leaders to not take steps that might negatively effect the economy or their industries by sparking panic.
On Wednesday, airline executives meeting with officials at the White House asked Trump and other White House officials not to take steps that would lead to a slowdown in air travel, a person familiar with the Wednesday meeting said. The executives asked the administration not to publicly discourage Americans from taking flights, saying their businesses were at risk if the government begins warning against commercial air travel.
Already, airlines have begun canceling planned routes due to a decline in demand and industry officials have said they expect losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars. At a briefing on Wednesday, Pence told reporters: “It’s safe to fly in America and it’s safe to fly internationally apart from the travel advisories that are available to the public.”
‘One of the only competent ones involved’
Trump himself has complained that certain officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, were too alarmist in their messaging about the virus. He’s said privately that doomsday scenarios and overly pessimistic predictions helped tank markets, according to people familiar with those conversations.
Pence has embraced his assignment of leading the coronavirus efforts after some of his advisers were initially worried the role was politically precarious. After Trump gave him the job, one adviser said Pence didn’t really have any choice but to make the most of it.
Since taking the reins of the administration response, Pence has repeatedly insisted the risk is low to most Americans. He and the other public faces of the administration response are now seeking to balance their efforts to spell out the facts of the situation while not running afoul of Trump, who doesn’t want to cause national panic.
Exacerbating the issue, some officials said, are existing tensions within Trump’s health team, which is now collected on a Coronavirus Task Force meant to address the outbreak.
Azar, who led the task force before being replaced by Pence, has feuded with multiple top officials since becoming HHS secretary in 2018. There remains a serious lack of trust between Azar and Seema Verma, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator, after the two got into a disagreement last year that turned so bitter the President got involved.
Verma was only added to the coronavirus task force after Pence took charge.
Azar also tried in vain to block Jerome Adams, the US surgeon general and a trained anesthesiologist, from joining the task force, despite Adams’s expertise in the area. Adams, who worked as Indiana’s health commissioner under Pence when he was governor of the state, was also added after Pence took charge.
The working group meets in the morning to establish the day’s objectives and then the principals meet every afternoon. While Azar has appeared at multiple public events with the task force over the past week, he was absent Wednesday from a press briefing and did not accompany Pence on his trip Thursday.
One administration official said whatever frustrations Trump may have once had with Azar have dissipated in the past several days, describing the Health chief as “one of the only competent ones involved” in the coronavirus effort.
‘All kinds of plans’
Even as Trump seeks to downplay the risks of the virus, federal agencies have been advised to prepare for the possible spread of coronavirus, including reviewing travel policies and ensuring as many employees as possible are able to telework.
The first federal employee to test positive for coronavirus — a USCIS worker in Seattle —emerged Thursday. Earlier, a government contractor at Los Angeles International Airport also tested positive.
Guidance sent by the Trump administration to federal agencies and departments instructed agency heads to reduce “non-essential travel as appropriate” and to “incorporate telework in their continuity of operations plans.”
A version of the guidance, which was sent to agency heads from the director of the Office of Personnel Management, also went to White House officials on Thursday, people familiar with the matter said.
Contingency plans for the federal government have been discussed in meetings with Trump, including the possibility of expanding telework options for federal employees, according to people familiar with the matter.
“All kinds of plans have been discussed,” one official said. “It’s just good preparedness.”
In the memo sent to federal agencies and departments, OPM instructed the entities to “ensure that telework has been fully incorporated and that as many employees as possible have been identified as telework employees in the plan, and are telework capable.”
The memo also said “All agencies shall review their travel policies and begin to reduce non-essential travel as appropriate.”
So far, Trump himself has not curtailed his travel plans, and is planning to travel Friday to Nashville to assess tornado damage.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.