U.S. President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency over the novel coronavirus, providing up to $50-billion to fight the pandemic, announcing an expansion of testing for the infection and spontaneously declaring that he will himself get tested after days of refusing.
But the White House news conference Friday contained scant details on when the measures would be rolled out, and at least one action Mr. Trump announced turned out to not actually be happening.
Mr. Trump also denied that he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed the implications of coronavirus for the countries’ border in a telephone call earlier this week – contradicting a summary of the call from Mr. Trudeau’s office – and said he was “surprised” that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had tested positive.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said she had reached a deal with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for a legislative package that would make testing free, and provide compensation for people who miss work or lose their jobs because of the pandemic.
The moves were announced after Mr. Trump faced weeks of criticism for playing down and taking little action against the outbreak. And they cap a head-spinning week, during which state governments and private corporations took such extraordinary measures to slow the pandemic that they easily outpaced the actions of the federal government.
But Mr. Trump insisted he bore no blame for the sclerotic response.
“No, I don’t take responsibility at all, because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations that are not meant for this time,” he said, describing his actions on the pandemic as “incredible.”
At one point, the President claimed Google was building a coronavirus portal to help people find testing locations. But Google said it was actually a different company that was building such a website, and it would only be available for the San Francisco area.
In response to a question, Mr. Trump said he would “most likely” be tested for coronavirus himself “fairly soon.” The President had previously refused the test despite coming into contact last weekend with a Brazilian political staffer who subsequently turned out to have coronavirus.
Asked about his conversation with Mr. Trudeau the previous day, Mr. Trump said “we didn’t discuss the border,” but that they had talked about Ms. Grégoire Trudeau. “I was a little surprised. I think he was surprised also … he thought that she would not, most likely, have the virus,” he said.
For weeks, Mr. Trump minimized the pandemic, once describing fears over the coronavirus as a “hoax” cooked up by his political opponents. And in a halting Oval Office address earlier this week, he banned travel from 26 European countries.
Public health experts said the move would be ineffectual because the virus is already present in the country. And the announcement had xenophobic undertones, blaming China and Europe for visiting the “foreign virus” on the U.S., and harking back to Mr. Trump’s previous move to ban travellers from majority-Muslim countries.
“It seemed rather political and arbitrary,” said Nina Yamanis, a public health expert at American University in Washington. “There’s no real public health reason for a travel ban at this point, and in fact it could hurt us. Our European allies are not going to want to send us supplies when we’re banning them from our country.”
Even members of Mr. Trump’s Republican Party showed frustration with the White House. Without naming the President, Senator James Lankford rebuked him for repeatedly falsely insisting tests were widely available when few people could actually receive them.
“People should not say, ‘If you want a test you can get a test,' right now,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “We’ve got a long way to go to be able to get rapid, efficient testing.”
Barbara Ann Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis compares unfavourably to former presidents’ managements of similar, unexpected problems. Even George W. Bush, who was criticized for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina, seemed to learn his lesson, and reacted much more swiftly and decisively to the later financial crisis.
“Trump can’t get his head around this, because he has no control over this act of God,” she said. “He’s just not by personality naturally a comforting, caring, charismatic leader. A demagogue is not what the world needs in a time of national crisis.”
The silver lining, however, was that other elements of American society had stepped in to fill the vacuum. Professional sports leagues suspended their seasons, Disneyland shut down and state governments ordered moratoriums on mass gatherings and school closures.
“It certainly looks like federalism in the United States is working just as the framers of the Constitution had hoped,” she said.