President Donald Trump now says that he was not kidding when he told rallygoers over the weekend that he asked staff to slow down coronavirus testing, undercutting senior members of his own administration who said the comment was made in jest.
“I don’t kid, let me just tell you, let me make it clear,” Trump told a reporter on Monday, when asked again if he was kidding when he said Saturday he instructed his administration to slow down coronavirus testing.
The President then sought to highlight the US coronavirus testing numbers and asserted that “by having more tests, we have more cases.”
Trump’s comment is the latest in an evolving set of explanations about whether he actually instructed his administration to slow down coronavirus testing because an increased number of cases made the country look bad – based on a comment made at his Saturday night rally.
Trump had told supporters at the rally that Covid-19 testing was “a double-edged sword.”
“I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down please,’ ” the President had said.
After the President made the comment, multiple White House officials asserted that the President was joking.
But Trump had a different story, telling a reporter that though he never gave an order to slow down testing, he really did tell his people that the United States would look better if fewer coronavirus tests were performed.
In an interview with CBN News that aired Monday evening, Trump said he told his “people” – presumably his staff or Cabinet members – about his perceived “disadvantage” to expanded coronavirus testing, adding that he never ordered testing levels be lowered.
In the interview with CBN News, Trump was asked directly if he told his administration to slow down testing, as he said at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night.
“No,” he answered, “but I think we put ourselves at a disadvantage, I told my people. I said, ‘We’ve gotten so good at testing … We test much more than any other nation,’ so you hear about all these cases.”
“So, instead of 25 million tests, let’s say we did 10 million tests. We’d look like we were doing much better because we’d have far fewer cases. You understand that,” Trump told CBN. “I wouldn’t do that, but I will say this: We do so much more than other countries it makes us, in a way, look bad but actually we’re doing the right thing.”
Trump also said his comment in Tulsa was “semi-tongue in cheek” and asserted that “when you do more testing you find more cases.”
“We have kids, with sniffles, and all of the sudden we report a case and they’re in no danger whatsoever,” the President added.
Experts have long said a massive increase in testing will be needed to reopen the country safely.
Harvard University said the US will need to deliver at least 5 million tests per day by early June to begin reopening. It says as many as 20 million tests per day would be needed to fully remobilize the economy, ideally by late July.
As of Tuesday morning, the US has performed nearly 22 million tests for Covid-19, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield told lawmakers.
Earlier Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters during a press briefing that Trump was speaking “in jest” and “in passing” at the rally.
“He has not directed (coronavirus testing to be slowed), and, in fact, I would note that first we continue to test about 500,000 per day, about half a million people per day,” McEnany said. “$1.8 billion dollars is invested in NIH to find new testing capabilities, any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact.”
“It was a comment that he made in jest,” McEnany added.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro similarly said that Trump was joking. And Vice President Mike Pence said on a Monday call with governors that the remark was “a passing observation,” a person familiar with the call told CNN.
Before his comment to CBN aired on Monday, Trump did not directly answer when asked by a Scripps reporter if he had requested to pare back testing.
“If it did slow down, frankly, I think we’re way ahead of ourselves if you want to know the truth,” Trump said. “We’ve done too good a job.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting and context about Trump’s comments.
CNN’s Maggie Fox, Ben Tinker, Nikki Carvajal and Jason Hoffman contributed to this report.