WASHINGTON — President Trump and members of his administration mobilized on Friday to confront the threat of the coronavirus — not just the outbreak, but the news media and the Democrats they accused of exaggerating its danger.
While stock markets tumbled, companies searched for new supply chains and health officials scrambled to prevent a spread of the virus, Mr. Trump and his aides, congressional allies and backers in the conservative media sought to blame the messenger and the political opposition in the latest polarizing moment in the nation’s capital.
Mr. Trump said that news outlets like CNN were “doing everything they can to instill fear in people,” while some Democrats were “trying to gain political favor by saying a lot of untruths.” His acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, went even further, telling conservative activists that journalists were hyping the coronavirus because “they think this will bring down the president; that’s what this is all about.”
At a campaign rally on Friday evening in South Carolina, the president denounced Democrats, describing the concerns they have expressed about the virus as “their new hoax” after the Russia investigation and then impeachment. “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he said. “We did one of the great jobs. How’s President Trump doing? They go, ‘Not good.’ They do not have any clue. They cannot even count the votes in Iowa. No, they can’t.”
The accusations came as other elements of the federal government moved to head off a broader wave of infections like those in China. The State Department urged Americans to reconsider traveling to Italy, where the virus has spread, and health officials reported two more cases of unknown origin, in California and Oregon, raising fears of local transmission. The World Health Organization reported cases in 56 countries and warned of a “very high” global risk, while stock markets closed their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general said that it would begin a “comprehensive review” of the federal government’s coronavirus response, speeding up a process that had already been underway to monitor how the health agency was organizing its resources for a potential domestic outbreak.
While other presidents in moments like this have sought to transcend politics and assert national leadership, Mr. Trump has framed the issue in partisan terms while playing down the risk to the United States. Privately he has been consumed by concern that his enemies will use the coronavirus and the economic impact it has against him as he seeks re-election.
Democrats said that Mr. Trump was making the crisis all about himself rather than the American public. “For Mick Mulvaney to suggest that Americans turn off their TVs and bury their heads in the sand when they’re worried about a global health pandemic is Orwellian, counterproductive, dangerous and would be repeating China’s mistake,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
Democrats argued that the virus posed a greater threat to Americans than General Suleimani, and Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island asserted that the Trump administration had not been forthcoming about the real risks each presented.
“Because of the dishonesty from this administration on this and many other issues, Americans have lost trust in their government,” Mr. Cicilline told the secretary. “Now we’re facing a serious global health crisis in the form of the coronavirus and trust is more important than ever.”
Mr. Pompeo bristled at what he considered a political ambush. “We agreed that I’d come today to talk about Iran, and the first question today is not about Iran,” he complained.
Republicans defended Mr. Pompeo by going on offense against the Democrats. “This hearing is a joke,” declared Representative Lee Zeldin of New York.
With Vice President Mike Pence leading the response to the virus, the administration has moved to coordinate its communication with the public. But officials sought on Friday to dispel the impression that they were clamping down on scientific information or limiting the availability of experts whose tone has suggested more alarm than the president’s.
In a briefing with congressional officials on Friday morning, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that he “was not muzzled” by Mr. Pence’s office, but he did say that he had to get permission for roughly a half-dozen television appearances that had already been planned.
Administration officials held a briefing at the White House featuring Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, along with Russell T. Vought, the budget director, and Eric Ueland, the White House legislative director. After each official read off a series of prepared talking points, they took only a handful of questions from journalists.
Of the three officials, Mr. Azar went the furthest in suggesting that the United States might face a difficult next phase of the coronavirus, if it spreads. Mr. Trump has repeatedly told advisers he is concerned that Mr. Azar and others in the administration are presenting an “alarmist” view.
“The administration has ignored or sidelined expert staff at agencies like the C.D.C. and the N.I.H., offered the public inconsistent and confusing information, and failed to provide clear leadership,” said Dr. Kathleen Rest, the executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a health policy expert, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
Mr. Pence went to Florida on Friday for a previously scheduled fund-raiser for the state’s Republican delegation, although he planned to give a briefing to Gov. Ron DeSantis while there. He also stopped by the radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh’s studio to insist that the administration was not focused on politics.
“Washington is always going to have a political reflexive response to things,” Mr. Pence said. “But we’re going to tune that out.”
Mr. Limbaugh has been among the conservative commentators who have blamed the news media and political opponents for overemphasizing the coronavirus, which he compared to the common cold. “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump,” Mr. Limbaugh, who was recently given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Mr. Trump, said on his show on Monday.
That theme has been amplified by some of the president’s favorite Fox News hosts, like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, in recent days and animated Mr. Mulvaney’s appearance on Friday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md.
“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “That’s what this is all about it.”
Mr. Mulvaney noted that the administration took action weeks ago to prevent a public health emergency by limiting travel from China, where the worst outbreak has centered. “Why didn’t you hear about it?” Mr. Mulvaney asked. “What was still going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment, that’s all the press wanted to talk about.”
The news media, in fact, has been covering the global spread of coronavirus intensively for months, including the Trump administration’s travel restrictions.
Following the president’s lead, Mr. Mulvaney also minimized concerns over the virus. “The flu kills people,” he said. “This is not Ebola. It’s not SARS, it’s not MERS. It’s not a death sentence; it’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”
Mr. Trump sounded off to reporters as he left the White House for the rally in South Carolina. “They’re doing everything they can to instill fear in people, and I think it’s ridiculous,” Mr. Trump said of CNN and other news outlets. “And some of the Democrats are doing it the way it should be done, but some of them are trying to gain political favor by saying a lot of untruths.”
That message was quickly picked up and repeated at the conservative conference. “It’s overblown in the media,” said Lee Murphy, a congressional candidate in Delaware and an actor who played a defense secretary once on “House of Cards.” “They want to get at President Trump every chance they can, but this should not be political. I’m tired of it being overblown and being political.”
Jeff Jordan, running for Congress in Virginia, said too much has been made of the coronavirus, which he compared with the common flu. “The media at large is not a fan of the president,” he said. “The media will take any opportunity they can to cause damage.”
On Capitol Hill, the attacks on coverage drew scorn from Democrats. “The problem is the American people need to be able to trust that their government will tell them the truth, no matter what the truth is,” said Representative Andy Levin of Michigan. “And I’m very concerned that the American people cannot trust this government.”
Tony Fratto, who served as a deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush during multiple crises, including the last time the stock markets fell so far so fast, said blaming others in such a situation is counterproductive and urged the White House to keep its attention on the underlying issue.
“Focus only on health and safety, and I know they don’t believe this, but if they keep Americans safe, they will definitely get credit for it,” he said. “Because of the White House’s attacks, if things do go poorly, they’re going to be blamed for taking their eye off the ball even if they’ve done all the right things.”
Reporting was contributed by Maggie Haberman, Lara Jakes, Catie Edmondson and Noah Weiland.