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Pelosi knocks Trump, accusing president of spreading falsehoods about coronavirus

The Hill logo The Hill 3/5/2020 Mike Lillis
a person standing posing for the camera: Pelosi knocks Trump, accusing president of spreading falsehoods about coronavirus © Greg Nash Pelosi knocks Trump, accusing president of spreading falsehoods about coronavirus

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday admonished President Trump for his recent statements on the coronavirus, accusing the president of misleading the public about both the severity of the epidemic and the effectiveness of the administration's response.

Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Pelosi knocked Trump, accusing him of downplaying the threat of virus, which has been detected in at least 17 states, while pushing blame on his predecessor for the administration's sluggish rollout of diagnostic tests.

Pelosi offered Trump unbidden advice: stick to the facts - and own up to your own mistakes - for the sake of the public's health.

"We have to dispel some of the misinformation that has been put out there," she said.

Pelosi criticized Trump's claim, delivered during a press briefing last week, that there were only 15 cases of the virus in the United States. At the time, there were 60 cases - 15 of which originated in the U.S. - and the number has since risen to 177, including 11 deaths, according to virus reports from Johns Hopkins University.

"When the president says there are only 15 [cases], and there are four or five times that many at that time - there are more now - that's just not right," she said.

Pelosi also knocked the president for his suggestion, offered Wednesday night in an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity, that a vast majority of Americans who contract the virus will recover "just by ... sitting around and even going to work."

"No," Pelosi countered, "there are other guidances that should be out there."

And Pelosi pushed back on Trump's claim, delivered Wednesday from the White House, that an unspecified policy under President Obama had initially hindered the administration's ability to test for the virus.

"The reality is in the public domain," she said.

"Right now it's about how we go forward, recognizing that ... we were on a path that wasn't working," she added. "But not blaming it on somebody else, but taking responsibility for it now."

The remarks came as Washington lawmakers, joined by public health officials, are scrambling to learn the severity of the epidemic as new cases pop up sporadically across the country. On Thursday, Tennessee became the 17th state to diagnose a case.

Behind Vice President Mike Pence, who's leading the White House response, administration health officials have blanketed Capitol Hill in recent days to update lawmakers in both chambers on the latest developments.

Republicans have largely applauded the efforts, praising the administration for what they've characterized as a swift and serious response. To promote the message, the White House put out an official statement this week highlighting the acclaim.

"The country can take great comfort in the fact that @realDonaldTrump has built teams to solve problems his entire life," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted. "America is armed with some of the best scientists in the world and in a better position to address coronavirus under @POTUS's leadership."

Democrats have some different views. While they've praised the public health officials leading the federal response, they've had harsher assessments of Trump and his political team, accusing them of being initially unprepared to tackle a global epidemic, and then exacerbating the crisis by downplaying the danger for political ends.

"We can either live in the world of truth, or we can live in the world of propaganda. If you want to live in the world of propaganda, go to China," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.). "That's where they silenced the critics and the truth-tellers and you had the outbreak on a scale that we've never seen. Here, we've got to allow for the facts and the fact-finders to do their jobs."

Central among the Democrats' criticisms has been the speed with which the test kits have been disseminated around the country. The administration recently adopted new rules empowering commercial labs and academic health centers to join the effort - a policy praised by lawmakers in both parties. But Pence warned Thursday that, despite the "all-hands-on-deck" effort, "we don't have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward."

"They slow-played this in the beginning, and now they're playing catch-up," said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a physician. "We've got to get those test kits out to the community and we've got to do community testing so we have an idea how widespread this is.

"South Korea is testing 15,000 people a day," he added. "This is the United States of America; we've got to get this right."

Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who served as health secretary under President Clinton, has largely praised the administration's response, citing the difficulties of tackling a global problem in the midst of so much fear and uncertainty.

"I'm not so critical about this," she said. "Did we stumble out of the blocks? We always stumble out of the blocks."

But Shalala also argued the need for more federal funding so the government isn't caught flat-footed again when the next new virus inevitably emerges.

"I don't know what the name of the virus is that's going to come next year," she said. "So I want permanent funding, permanent capacity in this country to deal with these viruses - the ones that we don't know their names."

Pelosi, meanwhile, argued the importance of moving beyond the political fights for the sake of preventing the spread of the coronavirus and treating those already infected. Those efforts, she said, must be "based on science, and evidence, and fact, and truth and the true epidemiology of coronavirus - of where it exists and how it spreads."

"These viruses know no boundary."

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