Far from allaying concerns about his administration’s readiness for coronavirus, Donald Trump’s appointment of Mike Pence to lead Washington’s response to the global outbreak has drawn swift backlash from health experts and Democratic lawmakers.
A day after tapping his vice-president for the role amid growing concerns about the disease’s global spread, Mr Trump was facing another punishing sell-off on Wall Street that plunged stock market indices into correction territory — a sign that investors had further soured on the White House’s ability to contain the health crisis.
On Thursday, Mr Pence moved to ease some concerns by naming Debbie Birx — a veteran US health official and US global Aids policy co-ordinator originally nominated by former president Barack Obama — to co-ordinate the White House response to the coronavirus outbreak.
And in a nod to the economic and market fears that have been stirred as the virus has spread, Mr Pence also named Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Larry Kudlow, the White House’s top economic adviser, to the coronavirus response team.
Despite the moves to assuage concerns, health experts and Democratic lawmakers panned the choice of Mr Pence to co-ordinate the government’s response, given the former Indiana governor’s record of scepticism towards established medical science on issues ranging from tobacco to HIV.
“He’s not someone who embraces science and public health evidence,” said Jeffrey Levi, professor of health management and policy at George Washington University. “The vice-president has a history of rejecting the CDC’s [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] advice.”
The doubts expressed in the past by Mr Pence about the links between tobacco and cancer, as well as his reluctance to support a vital needle exchange programme during an HIV outbreak in his home state in 2015, has exposed him to widespread criticism about his aptitude for the role.
“Mike Pence is not an upgrade,” said Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, in a tweet. “Putting a guy in charge of a deadly major pandemic who doesn’t believe in science and thinks smoking doesn’t cause cancer is . . . well . . . NOT A GREAT IDEA.”
If the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, it could put the vice-president in the spotlight in a way that he has so far avoided during the course of Mr Trump’s tenure in office, possibly defining his legacy and raising the political stakes.
Although Mr Pence was the most senior public face of the Trump administration’s efforts to pass the USMCA trade deal with Canada and Mexico through Congress, Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, did most of the nitty-gritty negotiating to clinch an agreement for ratification with lawmakers.
Among Mr Pence’s challenges with regards to the coronavirus outbreak will be to co-ordinate policy among a myriad of different agencies involved in the response, including the CDC and Food and Drug Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services; the state department for international travel restrictions; the Department of Homeland Security for immigration restrictions; and the commerce department for any trade issues related to international supplies of vital medical equipment.
“You need someone with serious clout within the White House to really orchestrate what needs to happen across the government,” Mr Levi said.
Mr Pence’s appointment did have some defenders. Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who did not vote for Mr Trump and has frequently criticised the president, noted that Mr Obama’s point person on the Ebola crisis, Ron Klain, had, by all accounts, done a good job, despite the fact that Mr Klain, like Mr Pence, did not come from a medical background.
“Having a vice-president in that role makes sense,” Mr Heye said. “I think we need to see how this progresses, but having someone at the top of government focusing their time on this is a smart move.”
In a press conference on Thursday, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, kept up the criticism of the Trump administration for an “opaque and often chaotic response” to the outbreak “up until now”.
She noted that Mr Trump’s new budget called for slashing funds to the CDC, while the president had left critical health and human services and department of homeland security jobs vacant, hobbling its ability to respond to the crisis efficiently.
While she expressed reservation about the selection of Mr Pence as the president’s point person, citing his record with the Aids epidemic in Indiana, she said she looked forward to working with him, as Democrats realised they would have to deal with him no matter what, including on extra funding from Congress to tackle the virus.
“We have always had a very candid relationship,” Ms Pelosi said.