Pence, a Loyalist Tapped for Coronavirus Effort, Adds to Trump’s Mixed Messages

Pence, a Loyalist Tapped for Coronavirus Effort, Adds to Trump’s Mixed Messages

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence has long been a one-man political cleanup crew for President Trump. From his day trip last fall to Turkey to negotiate a cease-fire in northern Syria to his takeover of the chaotic presidential transition, Mr. Pence is used to being diverted from his reliably anodyne schedule.

Now he has moved into one of the biggest political janitor jobs of all time.

Mr. Trump, who in recent weeks was infuriated by early decisions to allow coronavirus patients into the United States and irritated by public health officials offering their assessments to the public, has turned to Mr. Pence, an unfailing loyalist, to tamp down on messaging efforts and wrangle competing offices within the White House.

“Having the vice president gives me the biggest stick one could have in the government on this whole-of-government approach,” Mr. Trump proclaimed last week when he appointed Mr. Pence to lead the administration’s coronavirus task force.

He did not mention that one of Mr. Pence’s jobs is to clean up after a font of misinformation, the president himself, who has said he has a “hunch” that the virus is not as lethal as experts say and that everything will be better by April.

Mr. Pence, who maintains the emotive exterior of a block of marble, is a new daily fixture in the White House briefing room, where he offers 5 p.m. updates on the crisis and is disciplined with his words — his nickname on the 2016 Trump campaign was “On Message Mike.” On Friday it was Mr. Pence who projected calm as he announced that of 46 passengers tested on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California, 21 were positive for the virus.

But Mr. Pence has already had to clean up some messes of his own.

Early in the week Mr. Pence declared that “any American could be tested” for the virus, but by Thursday had to tell reporters that “we don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Pence said several times that the Department of Health and Human Services had ensured that insurance companies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, would all provide coverage for coronavirus tests, by designating the lab test an “Essential Health Benefit.” But his assertion substantially misrepresented the reach of that legal authority, which was established under the Affordable Care Act, and ignored the fact that Republicans in Congress had specifically targeted that provision for removal in 2017.

His performance led critics to say that the coronavirus is not a political or public relations battle but a public health crisis that is immune to spin.

“If you want to build public trust in an emergency, people have to believe you’re telling the truth,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. “You get this sad feeling like they’re doing political damage control rather than thinking about how to handle this.”

Still, the vice president has been credited with a demeanor more dignified than the ramblings and political attacks that often come from Mr. Trump when he talks publicly about the virus. (On Friday during a trip to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Mr. Trump called Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington a “snake.”) White House aides say Mr. Pence has instilled a measure of order in task force meetings, at least one of which he opened with a prayer. He has also been traveling.

On Thursday, Mr. Pence flew to Minnesota to meet with medical equipment manufacturers before flying to Washington state, which has reported 84 cases and 14 deaths, where he bumped elbows with the governor. The president, speaking at a Fox News forum in Pennsylvania on Thursday night, praised Mr. Pence for working “20 hours a day or more.”

The president also tried to tamp down pervasive speculation in Washington that he will remove Mr. Pence from the 2020 ticket should he mishandle the virus effort.

“I get along great with the vice president and I keep hearing that I’m replacing him but he’s doing a phenomenal job,” Mr. Trump said at the forum. “He’s a great guy and a loyal guy and he works so hard.”

As Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, put it: “He is uniquely qualified for this because of his close relationship to the president. Basically there’s no confusion that the president’s in charge.’’

Mr. Pence, the former governor of Indiana, has no public health expertise, and is remembered in his home state for slow-walking a decision to approve the distribution of clean needles for intravenous drug users, which he initially opposed on moral grounds. His decision is cited as a main reason that an H.I.V. crisis in a rural community ballooned to epidemic proportions.

“When it comes to a public health emergency, I would question whether or not he has the capacity to really listen to the experts in making informed decisions rather than grappling with his own personal beliefs,” said Dr. Carrie Lawrence, an assistant research scientist at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington.

Mr. Pence’s allies say that his appearances in the White House briefing room show that he is listening to public health experts, and point to how he steps back and relies on their knowledge when he doesn’t know the answer. “Get used to this,” he told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday, as he gestured for Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to take the podium.

Mr. Pence’s official advice echoes a Twitter bulletin issued by President Barack Obama, the gist of which is: Wash hands, leave masks for health care workers and listen to experts.

Mr. Pence has also been to Capitol Hill with his team to brief lawmakers, who praise the time he has spent with them but not always the information provided.

“They answered a lot of questions,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, said. “The problem is they didn’t have as many answers as we needed.”

Some state officials say they are appreciative of Mr. Pence’s efforts. Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat, said that she had been surprised by the amount of attention Mr. Pence had given her state, which has reported three coronavirus cases, and the administration’s decision to convene governors from across the country to discuss their needs.

“I would put them as extremely responsive right now,” she said. “Obviously I’m aware of his history around science but you know, he’s a former governor. He knows what it’s like to be on the front lines.”

Abby Goodnough and Margot Sanger-Katz contributed reporting.

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