On Friday, the White House’s coronavirus task force held its first public briefing in nearly two months. The reason for the reappearance is the rapid rise in cases this week across the American South and Southwest, but the task force, which had gone quiet since the Trump administration began its efforts to encourage states to reopen the country, didn’t have much in the way of new guidance to report. Instead, it seemed like an opportunity for task force members Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci to explain the new calamity and convey the continued need for social distancing in some areas.
For the head of the task force, Vice President Mike Pence, and other top Trump administration officials, the purpose of the event seemed to be—per usual—to lather President Donald Trump with praise for his response to a pandemic that has killed more than 120,000 Americans. The coronavirus has reemerged in force amid Trump-encouraged state reopenings even as it has largely subsided in Europe and elsewhere, but according to Pence, that’s nothing to really worry about. Just last week, the vice president published an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’ ”
On Friday, Pence also responded to questions about why the Trump campaign staged a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ignoring its own advice to the American people to listen to local health officials (local health officials in Tulsa denounced the gathering). The vice president’s explanation of this was that “it’s really important to recognize how important freedom and personal responsibility are to this entire equation” and to imply that campaign rallies were part of a larger economic reopening intended in part to protect the mental health of Americans and prevent suicide.
Pence began the event by praising the president for keeping American death totals below the 2.2 million Americans that might have lost their lives had no mitigation efforts been taken, something he has continuously celebrated in spite of the fact that our case and death totals are the highest in the world.
“The president made that decision,” Pence said. “Inarguably, as we see where we are today as a nation, because of what the American people have done, because of the incredible work of our health care workers, because of our partnership with governors in every state, we did just that. We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives.”
Remarkably, Pence then said that it was “nothing short of a national accomplishment” that at the previous height of the pandemic, there were enough ventilators not to leave people dying in waiting rooms without care. This is what you might call a low bar.
Pence did provide some information about the rising cases, noting that the national case count had dipped from 30,000 per day in April to 20,000 per day at the start of this month, but was now back up to a startling 40,000 new cases in a single day this week. He further noted that only 5 percent of new cases are currently resulting in hospitalizations, as opposed to 15 percent two months ago, and celebrated the fact that “this week, there were two days when we lost less than 300 Americans.” (Earlier this month, 2,500 Americans died from COVID-19 in a single day, but more than 200 Americans dying in a single day from this disease is still a horrible tragedy.)
The self-congratulation was not isolated to the vice president. When it was Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s turn to speak, he said that “now, thanks to the president and the vice president’s leadership and the hard work of our team, America has never been readier to combat COVID-19.” However, it does not seem like our level of readiness is yet up to snuff, as months into the pandemic, American case counts have risen to 10 times those of the European Union. Europe was generally earlier to confront the disease, but also earlier to ramp up per capita testing capacity and, in many countries, more stringent in its lockdown measures. Those efforts now seem to be paying off, as case totals have plummeted and elements of everyday life still absent in the United States, such as sporting events, have already returned.
At the end of the press conference, Pence was asked about the Trump campaign’s Tulsa rally. In addition to his might-prevent-suicides argument, he defended the gathering on constitutional grounds. “The freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, and we have an election coming up this fall,” Pence said. “We still want to give people the freedom to participate in the political process, and we respect that.” He added that, even though they had held the rally, the administration was still asking that “people listen to the leadership in their state and the leadership in their local community and adhere to that guidance” around wearing face coverings and avoiding mass gatherings, and continuing to “to reinforce that message.”
When a reporter asked why the campaign, though, directly ignored the warnings of Tulsa’s top health official Bruce Dart not to hold its rally, Pence again emphasized his First Amendment argument and then seemed to make a bizarre side point: “It’s so important that we recognize that as we issued guidance to reopen America now two months ago and now as all 50 states are opening up our country again, people are going back to work, American everyday life is being restored kind of one step, one day at a time,” Pence said. “There are profound health implications to the lockdowns through which we just passed. I heard a statistic not long ago at a task force briefing that in one jurisdiction there had been a 50 percent increase in the number of people presenting in emergency rooms having attempted suicide.”
Implying major political rallies were needed to help suicide prevention was a strange thing to say as states like Texas and Florida were in the process of shutting bars and restaurants down to address rising case numbers. As for the Tulsa rally, we know that dozens of Secret Service officials and agents who attended the event were ordered to quarantine after two of them tested positive this week. At least eight campaign staff who helped organize the event have also tested positive. The task force is back because cases of the coronavirus are again on the upswing. Let’s see how long it takes Pence to admit that means we can’t go back to everyday American life.