After repeatedly downplaying the coronavirus outbreak and breaking with the CDC to claim it’s just “going to go away” on its own, President Donald Trump gave his strongest response yet to the potential pandemic Wednesday—and it still left much to be desired. Speaking from the White House Briefing Room about COVID-19, Trump continued to play down the threat of the virus—“I don’t think its inevitable,” he claimed, directly contradicting the CDC—but outlined the administration’s response, including requesting congressional funding. “We’re ready to adapt and we’re ready to do whatever we have to when the disease spreads—if it spreads,” Trump said. And when it comes to overseeing this coronavirus strategy, Trump said Wednesday he had found the perfect man for the job: Vice President Mike Pence.
“I’m gonna be putting our Vice President Mike Pence in charge, and Mike will be working with the professionals and the doctors and everybody else,” Trump said Wednesday about Pence’s new responsibility. “We’re doing really well and Mike is going to be in charge and Mike will report back to me, but he’s got a certain talent for this.” The president claimed that Pence, the former governor of Indiana, was “really very expert at the [health care] field,” and the vice president noted that “as a former governor from the state where the first MERS case emerged in 2014, I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of the partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities.”
But the selection of the vice president to head up the coronavirus task force—particularly over an expert in the field—immediately drew criticism, given Pence’s track record when it comes to science and public health. Though the vice president touted his experience with MERS, Pence’s tenure in Indiana also notably included a major outbreak of HIV, which was viewed to be preventable and made worse by his conservative leadership. The evangelical Christian leader long disavowed needle exchanges that could have slowed the outbreak on moral grounds, though he eventually relented. “[Pence] made it an uphill battle,” Beth Meyerson, a health science professor at Indiana University and co-director of the school’s Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, told the New York Times in 2016. The now-veep also has a long and controversial history of holding views that are at odds with scientific facts, including questioning evolution, spreading misinformation about abortion, distrusting condoms, refusing to say climate change is a threat, and downplaying the health effects of smoking, saying in 2000 that “smoking doesn’t kill.” “If you’re choosing someone who’s going to lead a response for a major epidemic that has the potential to become a pandemic…then you choose somebody who has a lot of experience, maybe with a medical degree, or at least someone who has a long track record dealing with infectious disease outbreaks, global health, pandemic preparedness, or biosecurity,” Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health at UCSD School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t put those kinds of skills on Pence’s CV.”
Pence’s designation as the administration’s de facto coronavirus leader, however, falls in line with the vice president’s more recent efforts within the Trump administration, where he’s been wielding influence at the Department of Health and Human Services to push pet policies like defunding Planned Parenthood and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Politico reported in May 2019 that Pence—who has presidential ambitions of his own—has helped to install a friendly “Indiana mafia” at the HHS that will push his right-wing agenda, including HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who was an executive at an Indiana-based drug company when Pence was governor. “I just want to say I could not be more delighted that you’ve asked the vice president, my old friend and colleague, to lead this whole government approach with us,” Azar said at Wednesday’s press conference.