President Donald Trump spent nearly an hour speaking about drug cartels and military efforts to rein in smuggling operations on Wednesday as many Americans are desperately worried about the spread of COVID-19, the illness killing thousands of people around the country.
“There’s a growing threat that cartels, criminals and other malign actors will try to exploit the crisis for their own gain,” the president declared from the White House during his daily briefing on the coronavirus. “We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives.”
Trump, flanked by military officials and the attorney general, said the U.S. would begin new “counter-narcotics operations” using a network of Navy and Coast Guard ships. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited figures that 70,000 Americans die each year due to drugs, a number he called “unacceptable.”
“We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels as a result of COVID-19 were going to try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs into our country,” Milley said. “We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, we’re at war with drug cartels as well.”
The novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc around the nation and has now infected more than 213,000 people as many states urge residents to shelter in place for the foreseeable future. The nationwide death toll has surpassed 4,000, nearly 2,000 of those deaths in New York, an epicenter of the outbreak.
The president did speak about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic during the last half of the briefing, regularly calling the virus a “scourge” and saying America was waging an “all-out war” to defeat it.
Those assurances came amid reports the federal stockpile of emergency medical supplies — masks, face shields, gowns and ventilators ― was nearly empty. Governors around the nation have been pleading for more protective equipment to supply hospitals already facing an onslaught of infected patients, but the New York, Illinois and California governors have said they’ve received far less than what they need.
Trump confirmed in the briefing that the stockpile had run low, but said it had happened because the White House had been directing so many supplies to states. He said the country had about 10,000 ventilators ready to be shipped out.
“We have to have the flexibility of moving the ventilators to where the virus is going,” the president said, describing one of the most-requested items needed to treat direly ill Americans. “We have a nice pile of ventilators, we have a lot more coming in.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned earlier this week that up to 240,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus even if current social distancing measures remain in place.
On Wednesday, officials said those social distancing measures had extended somewhat to the military as the U.S. continues its operations abroad.
But Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the armed forces had no plans to scale down its global operations, instead instituting a bevy of social distancing and isolation measures to protect servicemen and servicewomen from infection.
“There seems to be some narrative out there that we should shut down the entire United States military: That’s not feasible,” Esper said. “We work in cramped quarters, it’s the nature of our business. We have a job to do and we will continue to do it.”
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