At the White House, officials start operating outside their lanes

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, a whole lot of Trump administration officials are operating far from their designated lanes.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus outbreak in the briefing room of the White House on March, 9, 2020.Carolyn Kaster / AP
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By Steve Benen

At first blush, HHS Secretary Alex Azar's talking points yesterday were largely unremarkable, though given the circumstances, I was more intrigued by the messenger than the message.

As stocks were on pace for their worst day since December 2008, with trading halted for 15 minutes after a dramatic market fall, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sought to reassure the public that the economy was still strong. "The market obviously has been very active today, President Trump has delivered historically strong economy fundamentals," Azar said.

So it's fallen to the nation's Health and Human Services secretary to talk about the health of the economy?

Hours later, there was a coronavirus update in the White House press briefing room, and among the officials standing in front of reporters was Peter Navarro, who advises the president on trade policy. Why was he there? There was no official explanation.

A day earlier, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson sat down with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos to discuss the administration's response to the public-health emergency. And while it's true that Carson is a retired medical doctor, his background is in brain surgery -- not epidemiology.

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, meanwhile, is a prominent public voice on the viral outbreak, making multiple media appearances -- and peddling highly dubious rhetoric -- while also serving as an official member of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce.

All of which suggests a whole lot of administration officials are operating far from their designated lanes. The Health secretary is talking about economic policy; the Housing secretary is talking about epidemiology; and economic advisers are helping respond to a public-health crisis.

As federal responses to viral outbreaks go, this seems ... different.