Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say that the coronavirus is not a hoax, as President Donald Trump and his allies increasingly try to manage the public health crisis in a way that benefits the president and his public image.
“It’s a gotcha moment. It’s not useful,” Pompeo said when Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked him whether he believed the coronavirus is the “hoax of the day” during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday.
Lieu’s question centered around comments made by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney at a gathering of conservative activists on Friday morning.
Mulvaney played down the disease that is spreading around the world, saying, “It’s not a death sentence, it’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”
He also accused the press of ignoring the crisis because it was too focused on covering the impeachment “hoax.”
“The press was covering their hoax of the day because they thought it would bring down the president,” Mulvaney said.
“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to [coronavirus] today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” he added. “That’s what this is all about it.”
Mulvaney didn’t actually call the coronavirus a “hoax,” despite Lieu’s question, but Pompeo still wouldn’t simply assert that it wasn’t one.
“The State Department is doing everything it can to protect American citizens around the world. I’m not going to comment on what others are saying. ... I’m just telling you what the secretary of state is doing,” he said, repeatedly refusing to deny that the disease is a “hoax.”
The coronavirus was discovered late last year (and the press has been widely covering it since then) and traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China. Experts say these so-called “wet markets,” where wild animals are butchered and sold and which are common in China and throughout Southeast Asia, create conditions that are ideal for spawning new diseases.
The new coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, is particularly concerning for scientists as it has not been previously seen in humans. So far it has killed more than 2,800 people and infected more than 83,000 globally.
The United States is among nearly 40 countries that have reported infections, according to the World Health Organization.
Trump dismantled the pandemic response team that President Barack Obama put in place, meaning that the White House is now having to create a new system from scratch.
Much of the administration response so far has been trying to reassure the public that it has the situation under control and focusing on the falling stock market.
“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday.
The White House has contradicted what experts in the government ― like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country’s leading virus experts and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease ― say about the disease and has told them that they are not allowed to speak publicly without approval.
Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the administration response. When Pence was governor of Indiana in 2014, when the state faced its worst HIV outbreak in state history, he refused to implement clean needle exchanges until the virus had already spread widely in one Indiana county.