Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday defended comments from President Trump and his supporters accusing Democrats of politicizing the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, including Donald Trump Jr.’s assertion that his father’s opponents hope the disease “kills millions” of Americans.
“When you see voices on our side pushing back on outrageous and irresponsible rhetoric on the other side, I think that’s important, and I think it’s justified,” Pence said when asked about the remarks from Trump Jr. and others on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”
Since the outbreak began, Trump has taken fire from liberal pundits, Democrats on Capitol Hill and his 2020 election opponents for comments that appeared to downplay the severity of the threat from the virus, including an assertion that it would simply die out once the weather warms. Critics also accused him of trying to defund programs and agencies designed to deal with exactly this kind of threat.
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Globally, there are more than 86,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus and nearly 3,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. In the U.S., there are at least 76 confirmed cases, and the first U.S. death was reported over the weekend in Washington state.
On Friday, Trump told a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally in South Carolina that the coronavirus was the Democrats’ “new hoax” to use against him – the same term he used for the investigation into Russian election interference and his impeachment. The next day, Trump clarified that he was calling the Democrats’ criticism – which he suggested ignored his administration’s efforts – a hoax, not the actual virus.
Several of Trump’s surrogates took his attacks further.
Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh said, “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.” Limbaugh said the virus was “nothing but the common cold” and that concerns about it were driven by “media hype.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said, “Democrats are using this for their political gain to try and stoke fear in the American people, which is shameful, wrong, and I think un-American.”
“Anything that they can use to try to hurt Trump, they will,” Trump Jr. told Fox News. “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.”
In response to those quotes, Pence turned the blame on the president’s critics and told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, “there’s been a lot of irresponsible rhetoric” among Democrats and commentators.
“Name some names, sir,” Todd shot back. “Because this just feels like gas-lighting. Please name some names.”
Pence pointed to a New York Times column written by Gail Collins that suggested the illness should be called the “Trumpvirus.”
Todd pressed Pence, asking him if he considered Trump Jr’s. comments “helpful.”
“To have someone advocate that you rename the coronavirus the Trumpvirus is reckless and irresponsible,” Pence responded.
When asked about Limbaugh’s comments, Pence replied, “I have great respect for Rush Limbaugh, and he’s a strong conservative commentator.”
Pence agreed Democrats were trying to politicize the threat.
“And that’s why my friends that you just played clips of are pushing back as hard as they’re pushing,” he said. “It’s time for the other side to turn down the volume.”
Like Trump, Pence attributed the coronavirus response criticisms to the opposition’s overall distaste for the president.
“Washington D.C. has just become reflexively critical of this president at every turn,” he said. “The opposition to this president for the last three years has been unprecedented in my lifetime.”
Criticism of the president’s response to the outbreak ramped up during Trump’s visit to India last week. The president downplayed the threat, telling reporters the virus was “very well under control in our country” and the “whole situation will start working out,” even as a top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official warned, “Disruption to everyday life may be severe.”
That same week Trump requested $2.5 billion in emergency funding from Congress to tackle the disease. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer responded with a proposal to increase the amount to $8.5 billion.
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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the health care committee, said the administration’s request was “totally inadequate.”
On Friday, former Vice President Joe Biden said the stock market had its worst week since the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, not just because of “the pandemic concern, but the way in which the president is handling this.”
Biden continued his criticism on Sunday, telling CNN, “We knew this was coming back as far as January. They didn’t even begin to prepare the testing kits. I mean, this is something that’s kind of elementary.”
And he slammed Trump’s “hoax” remarks.
“What in God’s name is he talking about?” Biden asked. “Has he no shame?”
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign said the administration’s handling of the virus was “inadequate, misleading, and dangerous.”
As Trump campaigned in South Carolina Friday, Sanders wondered why he wasn’t busy dealing with the virus.
“You would think that you’d have a president of the United States leading, working with scientists all over the world, bringing people together to figure out how we’re gonna deal with this crisis,” Sanders said.
Pence said Sunday that when the president tapped him to lead the task force on the virus, Trump told him, “I want you to make it clear that we’re all in this together.”
The vice president said he hoped Americans and the country’s political leaders would “think of the people that have been impacted in this, in this country and around the world, and find a way to come together.”
“This is no time for politics.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian, John Fritze, Michael Collins and Nicholas Wu