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Trump designates Pence to lead nation's response on the coronavirus

Noah Bierman, Jennifer Haberkorn and Noam N. Levey, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Desperate to stanch anxieties in the stock market and public fears that the White House is unprepared for a major coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump blamed Democrats and the media Wednesday for stoking panic even as his administration faces increased bipartisan concern over its disjointed response.

Trump, who has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus for weeks, held a news conference Wednesday night with federal health officials in an attempt to reassure Americans and to calm stock markets, which have plunged more than 6.5% in the last three days. Speaking to reporters, he appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the nation's response on the virus.

The fast-spreading virus that causes COVID-19 disease appears on track to test the competency of an administration that has proposed large budget cuts to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shut down an office assigned to track deadly diseases around the world and is rocked by constant turnover in top positions responsible for handling emergencies and potential emergencies.

Trump, who has claimed credit for the rising stock market of the last three years, has been preoccupied with its abrupt drop, complaining to business leaders during his trip to India this week that the stomach-churning falloff was beyond his control.

In a tweet Wednesday, he also blamed media outlets for "doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible" out of what he suggested was partisan malice as he seeks reelection.

CDC officials warned Tuesday that it's virtually certain the coronavirus epidemic will spread to pockets in America -- it is already confirmed in more than three dozen countries, causing more than 2,700 deaths -- and Americans should brace for major disruptions to everyday life, possibly including restricted travel, closed schools, work slowdowns and more.

 

Allies counseled Trump to put his political and economic frustrations aside to focus on the public health threat, arguing that ancillary problems will fix themselves once the public is convinced the administration is prepared for what may prove a significant crisis.

"This is not a garden-variety routine event," said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, who saw his popularity plummet after a botched response to Hurricane Katrina's battering of New Orleans in 2005. "This can grow into people being legitimately scared into wondering what to do to protect their health, to protect their family's health."

Fleischer was among many experts and former officials jarred by the administration's sluggish reaction so far and the conflicting messages from the White House, which insists the situation is under control, and federal health officials, who have issued increasingly dire warnings.

"A situation like this is extremely volatile and dynamic," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, who heads the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "And to have all these mixed message from the administration is mind-boggling. It seems they are so muddled at the White House about the political and economic consequences of this that they've resorted to just making stuff up."

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