White House dogged by persistent coronavirus contradictions

Mike Pence took over the federal response to the coronavirus and hoped to reduce the contradictory messages. His efforts don't appear to be working.
Image: Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence speaks in the briefing room of the White House about the coronavirus outbreak on March, 9, 2020.Carolyn Kaster / AP
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By Steve Benen

Yesterday morning, at 10:41 a.m. (ET), Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar appeared on Fox News and insisted that "nobody" in the Trump administration is "trying to minimize" the dangers posed by coronavirus. Literally six minutes later, Azar's boss went in the opposite direction.

"So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year," Donald Trump tweeted. "Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

Hours later, Vice President Mike Pence hosted a White House press briefing and referenced the Grand Princess cruise ship, which docked in Oakland yesterday. Pence said that the president made it a "priority to get the Americans ashore," and while that may have sounded nice, it also contradicted what Trump actually said.

In fact, during a visit to the CDC in Atlanta, the president conceded that he didn't want the ship's passengers to interfere with his talking points about outbreak tallies. "I would rather -- because I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship," Trump said, adding, "I'd rather have them stay on [the ship], personally."

Given the broader circumstances, these contradictions are probably best seen as minor, but they are part of a much larger pattern in which the president and prominent members of his team appear to be reading from entirely different scripts. The Washington Post's JM Rieger highlighted several other related contradictions in a column yesterday:

Initially, warmer weather would kill it. Then it wouldn't. The number of cases would soon be close to zero. Then they rose. It should be treated like the flu. Except Americans should know it is deadlier. As many as 1 million people could be tested by the end of last week. Until they weren't.

Rieger added, "Over the past 30 days, Trump and members of his administration have contradicted other Trump officials at least 14 times on various parts of the coronavirus response."

This, alas, isn't altogether new, and contradictions among administration officials have been common for weeks. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence was tasked with overseeing the White House's response to the outbreak in order to "prevent the kind of contradictory statements from White House officials and top government health officials that have plagued the administration's response."

Those efforts apparently aren't going well, as some Americans struggle to know whom they're supposed to believe.