Frustrated Trump Considers Naming Coronavirus ‘Czar’


WASHINGTON — President Trump has privately expressed frustration to numerous officials about his administration’s efforts to stop a possible domestic outbreak of the coronavirus and has discussed appointing a “czar” to manage the administration’s response, according to someone familiar with his comments.

But a mixed public message emerged Wednesday from the White House as a spokesman denied that Mr. Trump was looking to hire a White House coronavirus coordinator, saying the president was “pleased” with the work that Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, was doing as the head of a task force overseeing the response.

One senior administration official insisted that Mr. Trump has been pleased with Mr. Azar, and that any conversation related to a new point person would come only if infections spread significantly. Vice President Mike Pence has been discussed as one option among several, the official said.

Still, the administration has been struggling with a sluggish reaction, even if Mr. Trump has been reluctant to give in to what he considers an “alarmist” view about the virus, an administration official said. Mr. Azar, testifying before a House subcommittee, confirmed on Wednesday afternoon a new American case, bringing to 60 the total number of infections that have been counted in the United States. Mr. Azar said that health officials were still figuring out how the new person became infected.

The president has called a news conference for 6:30 p.m. to discuss the virus and has publicly praised his administration’s response. On Wednesday morning, he condemned the news media, saying journalists were making the coronavirus “look as bad as possible.” Contradicting some government experts who see the coronavirus threat as only beginning, he is still convinced that, like the flu, the new coronavirus will dissipate with warmer, more humid weather.

The possibility of the virus spreading in the United States comes as the administration grapples with cuts and personnel moves that critics say have weakened the system for dealing with such health crises. The White House in 2018 eliminated a dedicated position on the National Security Council to coordinate pandemic response, the same year that the Trump administration dramatically narrowed its epidemiological work, from 49 countries to 10.

In November, a task force at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which included five current and former Republican senators and House members, warned that “the United States remains woefully ill-prepared to respond to global health security threats” and recommended the reinstatement of an N.S.C. coordinator and a recommitment of funding and attention to global health programs.

Instead, the president’s budget request this month for the fiscal year that begins in October would slash the C.D.C.’s budget by almost 16 percent, and the Health and Human Services Department’s by almost 10 percent. The proposal’s $3 billion in cuts to global health programs included a 53 percent cut to the World Health Organization and a 75 percent cut to the Pan American Health Organization.

It has fallen to Mr. Azar to make the case that the government is up to the task of containing a virus that has infected more than 80,000 people globally, and killed nearly 3,000. For a second day, Mr. Azar was on Capitol Hill Wednesday defending his work, telling lawmakers that he was overseeing “the smoothest interagency process I’ve experienced in my 20 years of dealing with public health emergencies.”

“The president and I spoke this morning as he returned from India, and he said, ‘I want to continue being radically transparent,” Mr. Azar said. “‘When you come over to brief me this evening, let’s sit and invite the press in,’” he told a House committee as he testified about his department’s budget.

  • Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.

Mr. Trump’s reassurances appear at least in part aimed at calming global markets. A day after its worst one-day slide in two years, the S&P 500 closed down 3 percent on Tuesday, a decline that put the index deeper in the red for 2020.

On Wednesday, Moody’s Analytics predicted a 40 percent chance that the virus would break containment in China and grow into a global pandemic that would push the United States and the world into a recession. Its chief economist, Mark Zandi, said in a research note that he expected the virus to reduce American economic growth by 0.2 percentage points this year — and that a “black swan” recession now looked uncomfortably possible.

“The economy was already fragile before the outbreak and vulnerable to anything that did not stick to script,” he wrote. “Covid-19 is way off script.”

With cabinet secretaries fanned out on Capitol Hill, Wednesday featured more sharp questioning about the administration’s preparedness for the virus. Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, was asked in another House hearing by Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, whether his department had the necessary resources and funding.

“There is now community transmission in a number of countries outside Asia, which is deeply concerning,” Mr. Azar told House lawmakers on Wednesday. “We expect to see more cases here.”

Later in the day, he told a separate House panel that he expected “at least limited community transmission in the United States.”

Mr. Azar said that the C.D.C. has already exhausted the $105 million rapid response fund that the federal government had been using in its initial response efforts. He has proposed shifting $136 million from other health programs to the coronavirus to replenish the government’s efforts.

“It’s a very fast-moving process,” he said.

Mr. Azar faced bipartisan concern about the administration’s request for additional funding, as top lawmakers and staff began discussions on an emergency spending package — a package that is expected to be much larger than the $2.5 billion request the White House submitted Monday evening.

Lawmakers from both parties have said the White House request is far short of what is needed. It includes less than $2 billion in new funding and relies on the transfer of existing funds — including $535 million intended to counter the spread of the Ebola virus. In a briefing Tuesday morning with senators, administration officials said that they understood that the package would need to grow, according to a Senate aide familiar with the exchange but unauthorized to discuss it publicly.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds health programs, criticized the White House’s funding proposals as “unacceptable.”

Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, asked Mr. Azar if he would accept some of the $3.8 billion in federal defense funds that had been redirected to the construction of a wall on the southern border.

“I don’t believe that the administration would be supportive of that,” Mr. Azar said with a chuckle. “But Congress will make the decisions.”

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, proposed on Wednesday to increase the president’s emergency request drastically, to $8.5 billion in new funds.

When he announced his coronavirus proposal Wednesday morning, Mr. Schumer pointed to the $6 billion Congress appropriated for a 2006 flu pandemic and the $7 billion it carved out for the H1N1 flu in 2009. His plan includes $3 billion for a public health emergency fund, $1.5 billion for the C.D.C., $1 billion for vaccine development and $2 billion for reimbursing states and cities for efforts they have so far made to monitor and prepare for potential cases of the virus.

A House subcommittee hearing with Mr. Azar Wednesday afternoon grew testy, as Representative Anna Eshoo, Democrat of California, accused him of covering for the president when he refused to say whether he agreed with Mr. Trump that the virus would fade in warmer weather.

“You’re doing a great job for the president, Mr. Secretary,” she said.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, pressed Mr. Azar to commit to making a future coronavirus vaccine affordable for everyone, but the secretary would not.

“We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price, because we need the private sector to invest,” he said. “Price controls won’t get us there.”

The politics of coronavirus shifted drastically on Tuesday when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.”

She said that hospitals and schools should begin preparing for an outbreak, and that she had even spoken to her own family about “significant disruption of our lives.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Azar told a Senate panel that medical supplies were badly needed for the nation’s emergency stockpile, including 300 million masks for health care workers alone, he said.

Lawmakers have expressed alarm that the Trump administration has yet to appoint a czar-like position at the White House, which President Barack Obama did in 2014 to handle the Ebola virus. That role, and a global health expert slot on the National Security Council, have been vacant for years.

“This is probably something that justifies having one person in the government who can work cross the various departments and agencies,” Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, said. “It would make sense to have a single person who is in charge of our national response.”

Senator Mazie K. Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, said Tuesday as she left a briefing with federal health officials that she was not sure who was actually on the administration’s task force.

“This is why we do need somebody that’s like a coronavirus czar as we had during the Ebola situation,” she said.

Ronald Klain, who held the Ebola position in the Obama White House, said, “One cabinet secretary cannot run an interagency response. Azar has the biggest civilian job in the American government. Is he doing this in his spare time?”

At the Wednesday morning hearing on the health department’s budget, lawmakers questioned Mr. Azar about public health-related cuts the Trump administration had proposed, in addition to his plans to fund the coronavirus response, for which the White House had sought billions of dollars from Congress.

A chart obtained by The New York Times on Tuesday showed that Mr. Azar was proposing shuffling money from key health programs to fund the administration’s response, including some that were central to Mr. Trump’s agenda, like H.I.V. and AIDS prevention,…


Read more…