Team Trump pushes Congress to cut funds for virus testing, CDC

How hostile is Trump to coronavirus testing? His administration is now pushing Congress to curtail funding for this critical element of the response.
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Storm clouds gather above the White House on April 9, 2020.Oliver Contreras / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Exactly one month ago today, Donald Trump spoke to a modest crowd of supporters in Tulsa, where he added a rhetorical flourish to his routine criticism against coronavirus testing. "Testing is a double-edged sword," the president said, adding, "When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases, so I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"

White House officials quickly insisted that Trump was simply kidding -- the remarks were "made in jest," Kayleigh McEnany insisted yesterday -- though the president himself argued to reporters that he was quite sincere.

To be sure, there's little to suggest the administration took deliberate steps to "slow the testing down" at Trump's behest, but the president's incessant arguments against testing have brought the White House to a truly bizarre place. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

The Trump administration is trying to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing in the upcoming coronavirus relief bill, people involved in the talks said Saturday. The administration is also trying to block billions of dollars that GOP senators want to allocate for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and billions more for the Pentagon and State Department to address the pandemic at home and abroad, the people said.

The report added while Senate Republicans are prepared to invest an additional $25 billion in testing and contact tracing in the next economic aid package, some in the Trump administration "want to zero out the testing and tracing money entirely."

Neither the Democratic-led House nor the Republican-led Senate will go along with such a request, but the fact that the president's team supports these cuts is indefensible, especially given the increasingly scary circumstances.

There's been no official explanation for the administration's position, though it seems easy to conclude that Team Trump believes less testing will lead to fewer cases -- a line Trump has repeated with unnerving frequency -- which the president can then turn into a campaign talking point.

But let's also not brush past the other facet of the reporting: the administration also wants to cut CDC funding during the pandemic.

Alas, this isn't altogether new. In February, the White House released its official budget for the coming fiscal year, and it included proposals to slash investments in the CDC. That blueprint was written, however, long before the coronavirus crisis came into focus in the United States.

On March 10, however, the White House budget office doubled down, telling lawmakers it still wanted the CDC cuts, despite the outbreak that was quickly unfolding at the time. About a week later, when Congress made clear it had no intention of cutting CDC spending during a public-health crisis, the administration reversed course.

Four months later, however, Team Trump has apparently returned to its pre-COVID-19 position.

All of this is unfolding under challenging circumstances: not only is the coronavirus continuing to take a brutal toll, but CARES Act benefits are poised to expire for millions of American families. House Democrats, eager to stay ahead of the problem, passed an economic aid package in mid-May. After months of inactivity, Republicans hope to unveil a more conservative alternative this week.

It's against this backdrop that GOP officials in the White House and Capitol Hill aren't yet in agreement on whether to invest additional resources in coronavirus testing.

Watch this space.