Who’s in charge of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response? During the White House press briefing Wednesday night, it was difficult to tell.
President Donald Trump had announced minutes into the press briefing that Vice President Mike Pence would lead the administration’s response to the outbreak. “I’m going to be announcing exactly right now” that Pence would lead the administration on the matter, Trump said. “Mike will report back to me.”
That “blindsided” the man who had been leading the government’s response, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, The Washington Post reported Wednesday citing five unnamed people familiar with the situation. Politico reported, citing four unnamed people familiar with the matter, that Pence’s appointment was a “shock” to Azar and his team.
“That doesn’t speak well to a joined-up process,” Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, told TPM.
Azar chairs the White House task force on coronavirus, which was announced in late January. But Pence is expected to lead the task force’s meeting Thursday, the Post and Politico reported. At a congressional hearing Thursday morning, Azar described himself as “chairman of the President’s coronavirus task force and working in conjunction with the administration’s lead for the virus, Vice President Pence.”
Wednesday night, after the President had stopped taking questions on his administration’s approach to the outbreak — clashing with public health officials but acknowledging the White House would spend more than initially planned to fight the virus — the health secretary appeared to be digesting the news in real time.
“Mr. President, do you still have confidence in Sec. Azar, given the Pence move?” a reporter asked the President. Azar’s eyebrows arched dramatically.
“I have great confidence,” Trump said before Azar interjected.
“If I could just clarify, I think you’re not getting the point here of this. I’m still chairman of the task force,” he said. Pence’s involvement, Azar said, “gives me the biggest stick one could have in the government on this whole-of-government approach.”
“When the President — when this was mentioned to me, I was delighted that I get to have the vice president helping in this way,” Azar said, as Trump slipped out the door to the briefing room.
Pence himself is an “imperfect messenger” for an outbreak response, Busby noted. The worst HIV outbreak in Indiana history occurred in 2015 under Pence’s governorship.