The White House coronavirus task force had already faded from public view as the administration pivots from public health to the economy, but as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence openly shifted into campaign mode this month they have also openly flouted the advice of top administration health officials.
Even as the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday that “you still should be wearing a mask and “avoid congregating in large numbers,” Trump the same day announced he would resume his signature mega rallies next week after more than a three-month hiatus due to the virus.
It was unclear whether wearing masks would be required. Trump has never worn one in public.
Pence, meanwhile, on Wednesday eschewed wearing a face mask as he addressed a room packed with campaign staffers in Virginia.
In a photograph he shared on Twitter, the vice president appeared before scores of campaign staffers packed shoulder to shoulder in a room — none apparently wearing masks — although he appeared to be standing at a short distance from the audience. Pence spoke for 20 minutes, a campaign official said, then tweeted a picture of the interaction — before quickly deleting it.
The relaxed public posture the president and vice president are now adopting as they shift their focus back to the campaign trail fits into the administration’s broader shift away from focusing on the public health elements of the crisis brought on by the virus.
The task force Trump set up to deal with COVID-19, led by Pence, has assumed a diminished role.
When the administration was in the throes of its crisis response through much of March and April, the task force met for daily meetings — including on weekends — chaired by the vice president.
Now, the task force typically convenes three times a week — at the staff level — according to an administration official. The vice president now attends one of the meetings each week, on average, in addition to holding a weekly conference call with governors; this week, he was scheduled to attend two.
“The Whac-A-Mole nature of the task force ceased to exist at some point,” said a senior White House official, who said the reduced frequency of the task force’s meetings has corresponded with the urgency of the crisis.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that the administration is no longer simultaneously responding to multiple complex emergencies that included Americans marooned cruise ships and fears of ventilator shortages among other challenges.
Gone, too, are the task force press briefings featuring the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Polls showed Americans trusted them much more than politicians, and now they’re mostly missing out on their guidance amid ominous signs of a possible second wave.
The once-daily coronavirus-focused and high-profile press briefings, which began as an initiative by the vice president’s office to provide updates on the task force’s work but were more often than not commandeered by Trump, have dropped off the calendar — and Americans’ screens — altogether since late April. A senior official said there is discussion of putting one on the schedule before the end of June.
TV appearances by the administration’s top health experts have also grown increasingly rare in recent weeks as the administration has instead pushed the president’s economic advisers in front of cameras amid the focus on reopening the economy.
Fauci’s appearance on “Good Morning America” broke a weeks-long drought of network TV appearances by the expert.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday said he was concerned about the way that the administration too quickly “sidelined” the task force.
“The president, always interested in himself, not in the good of the country, was too quick to sideline the coronavirus task force, too eager to pretend that everything was back to normal and better than ever,” Schumer said during remarks on the Senate floor. “The country needs Dr. Fauci on billboards but the president wants to put him on a milk carton.”
The White House has made no secret of the fact that it has sought to refocus the task force’s principal mission toward the economy but strongly denied there has been any intentional effort to silence the experts in the process.
“The health officials are not being sidelined,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere told ABC News. “They never have been sidelined.”
But even while the administration may now talk less about it, the reality is that the virus has proven to be a persistent threat to public health. Twenty states and Puerto Rico have seen recent increases in new reported cases according to The New York Times, and the national death toll has crept onward past 110,000 lives.
An official argued that “just because the president isn’t coming to the podium every night or Dr. Birx or Dr. Fauci aren’t doesn’t mean that the task force isn’t working or meeting. It’s never stopped working.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been coordinating much of the logistics for the task force, and when asked earlier this month whether its role might change, a spokesperson told ABC News the agency would continue “until directed otherwise by President Trump.”
Pence’s Wednesday visit to the Trump campaign office in Arlington, Virginia, where state and local authorities encourage — and sometimes mandate — face coverings, drew the ire of Democrats.
“The vice president yesterday was photographed with campaign staffers in a tight space, no social distancing,” Schumer said Thursday. “The very least the administration could do is lead by example and often cannot even manage that much.”
Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs, including Arlington, criticized Pence for appearing to violate social distancing guidelines and said the deletion of the tweet showed Pence knew something was wrong.
“This kind of tightly packed indoor gathering without masks is reminiscent of ‘super spreader’ events earlier in the pandemic, and could put Arlingtonians at risk,” Beyer said.
Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, has issued an executive order mandating employees of certain businesses and patrons wear masks when social distancing is not possible, but the order appeared to not cover employees at campaign offices.
ABC News’ Allison Pecorin, John Parkinson and Anne Flaherty contributed reporting.