As the stock market on Friday continued to nosedive over COVID-19 fears, the White House defended President Donald Trump‘s response to the new coronavirus as he and his supporters continued to downplay the threat and accuse Democrats and the news media of hyping the risk to weaken him politically.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday morning, said it’s likely U.S. schools might have to “shut down” and public transportation” could likely be affected — but only in an offhand comment about the virus not being “a death sentence.”
Recounting how he had gotten a note from a reporter asking what he’s going to do to calm the markets, he said he might tell people to turn off their televisions.
“It is real? It absolutely is real,” Mulvaney said while adding that 20 million Americans get the flu each year. “This is not Ebola, OK? … It’s not SARS, it’s not MERS,” he said, referring to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, pointing to their high fatality rates.
“It’s not a death sentence,” he said. “It’s much easier to get than Ebola…but this is something we know how to deal with.”
“Are you going to see some schools shut down? Probably. May you see impacts on public transportation? Sure. But we do this. We know how to handle this,” he added.
Mulvaney said the administration visited the Capitol earlier this year, for briefings with health experts for the House and Senate, but few members showed up as Trump’s Senate impeachment trial was underway.
“We took extraordinary steps four of five weeks ago. Why didn’t you hear about it? What was going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment!” Mulvaney said. “And that’s all the press wanted to talk about.”
He also mentioned the travel restrictions against China Trump ordered over a month ago, “in order to prevent the further outbreak,” complaining that some Democrats complained the move was “racist.”
“The press was covering their hoax of the day because they thought it might bring down the president,” he said. “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to bring down the president.”
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, also speaking at CPAC and echoing comments made on Fox News, contended Democrats will take “anything that they can use to try to hurt Trump.”
“Anything he does in a positive sense…they will not give him credit for,” he said. “The playbook is old at this point, but for them to try to take a pandemic and seemingly hope that it comes here, and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning is a new level of sickness.”
He also addressed the falling markets.
“There’s no question that the threat of coronavirus can destabilize the market, but the fact that the Democrats are seemingly hoping for this to happen, just like you’ve seen them over the last year, pray for a disaster to happen in the economy, meaning people lose their jobs, their mortgages, their livelihoods, so that they can own Trump somehow, is absolutely insane,” he said.
“Watching 50 percent of our U.S. government pray for that to collapse, pray for the destruction of those families and those jobs is truly a new low for Democrats that have been exceeding lows in an unprecedented fashion over the last few years,” he said.
On Fox News, host Sean Hannity opened his program Thursday night saying, “I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We’re all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to die, all of you, in the next 48 hours and it’s all President Trump’s fault — or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical Socialist Party would like you to think.”
President Trump Thursday evening said of the novel coronavirus, “like a miracle, it will disappear” but that “nobody really knows.”
“It’s like a miracle — it will disappear,” Trump said in an unscheduled gathering in the Cabinet room with members of the African American community. “And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
After introductions around the table, the president launched into a staunch defense of his administration’s handling of coronavirus, while slamming the media and Democrats for bringing politics into the response.
“I know politics, and you know, politics is fine,” Trump said. “But when it comes time to talk about pandemics or whatever you may want to call it, you got to get away from politics.”
He also gave his administration high marks, saying the response so far has been “incredible.”
“If we’re doing a great job, we should congratulate these professionals that are the best in the world. And you know what, if we were doing a bad job, we should also be criticized, but we have done an incredible job,” he added.
Trump did not mention the stock market, which plunged for the fifth day in a row Friday, falling more than 800 points after the opening bell, but he said earlier in the week it “will recover.”
Shortly after, at another White House Black History month event, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar touted Trump’s decision to close U.S. borders to travelers from China and other nations, saying “it has kept America safe” and “bought us time.”
“The president really deserves incredible credit because he got on this within days and weeks of learning from China about this and took action that people attacked him for,” Azar said. “People attacked him for these actions on controlling our borders and quarantining people that has kept America safe. It has bought us time, so thank you, Mr. President.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who held a photo op with Azar Thursday to publicly show he was taking the lead in the administration effort, was headed to Florida Friday to deliver remarks to make a political speech at the Club for Growth’s annual conference in West Palm Beach and later speak at a GOP fundraiser for House Republicans in Sarasota, Florida.
While there are no confirmed cases in Florida so far, the vice president scheduled a meeting in between the political events with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
House members on Friday morning assembled on Capitol Hill for a closed briefing on the novel coronavirus from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIAID), and other administration officials and federal health professionals.
Sources told ABC News on Thursday that all statements to the public, including those from officials with the Centers for Disease Control to Health and Human Services, must first be cleared through the vice president’s office.
Critics say that has the potential for the White House to censor information.
But lawmakers in the House briefing said Dr. Fauci told them he had not been put under a gag order.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Friday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pressed by House Democrats for both the admin’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak — though the original reason for the hearing was to address the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani more than two months ago.
Asked about the administration’s proposed cuts to the global health budget, Pompeo said with a smile, “We’ll have plenty of money.”
Democrats jumped in to say the administration’s lost credibility and sent mixed messages on the COVID-19 outbreak, at first prompting Pompeo to push back that the hearing was supposed to be about Iran.
Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, accused the administration of a “blatant disregard for facts,” saying it’s left the American people unsure of whom to trust. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., condemned what he called a “pattern” of “misinformation”– pointing to Trump’s statements on vaccines and warm weather.
“This impacts everyone in America — and it’s more important than politics Mr. Secretary. The administration must do better,” he said.
Several Republicans pushed back against the Democrats in the room, with Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., calling their behavior an “embarrassment” and the hearing a “joke.” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. said they were “out of hand” and he was “deeply angry” at them.
On the COVID-19 outbreak, Pompeo said the U.S. has reached out to Iran and through its partners to offer U.S. assistance.
ABC News’ Liz Alesse, Megan Hughes, Conor Finnegan and John Parkinson contributed to this report.