Moussa81/iStock(WASHINGTON) — With an uptick in coronavirus cases in the U.S. expected to rise, lawmakers on Tuesday hammered President Donald Trump’s top advisers on whether the administration was doing enough almost two months into the global crisis and expressing deep skepticism of the president’s claims that the situation was “under control.”
“It looks like they’re getting it under control, more and more, they’re getting more and more under control,” Trump said Tuesday morning at a news conference in India. “So, I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away.”
Lawmakers were briefed on the crisis in the morning by the nation’s top health experts and administration officials, and later heard testimony from Health Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said they were told in what was originally designated a classified briefing, but later declassified after senators complained, that “there is a very strong chance of an extremely serious outbreak of coronavirus in the United States.”
And while several Republicans said they believed the administration had it under control, two GOP senators sharply questioned Trump Cabinet members on whether that was true and if the $2.5 billion spending plan was enough.
“You’re head of Homeland Security. Do we have enough respirators or not?” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, in one testy exchange with Chad Wolf, acting head of the Department of Homeland Security. He deferred questions on the scope of the crisis and preparedness plans to the Health and Human Services Department.
“The American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy said at one point.
At a separate hearing with Health Secretary Alex Azar, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby questioned whether the $2.5 billion spending plan was a “lowball” number and offered this stern warning.
“This is not the time to try to shortchange the American people… This is the time to step up,” Shelby said.
Trump’s top advisers pushed back, insisting they were moving aggressively to manage the health crisis but acknowledging a vaccine could be about a year away and there weren’t enough respirators for health care workers. Azar said the country needs about 300 million respirators, and has only some 30 million.
But he noted that putting cruise ship passengers exposed overseas in quarantine was the first such federal mandate in 50 years.
“We have enacted the most aggressive containment measures in the history of our country in terms of our borders,” Azar told a Senate panel.
He later added that while containment was still the goal, “at some point, if there is some sustained human-to-human transport, we hope to mitigate,” he said.
Democrats accused Trump of taking the threat seriously after a fall in the stock market.
“I’m just wondering why it took a dive in the stock market before the Trump administration decided this was an important issue, important enough to ask for this money,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told reporters.
“We should have emergency preparedness, not that we have an emergency in America, but we have to prepare to make sure we don’t,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said. “And that’s what we’re not doing.”
In a floor speech, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer blasted the administration for what he called “towering and dangerous incompetence.”
Meanwhile, a top health official warned the spread of the virus was inevitable.
“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top health official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During his news conference President Trump added that while the coronavirus is “pretty bad” and a “very serious thing,” he said that “it’s going to work out fine” and that the virus will “go away.”
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