Mike Pence couldn’t bear to stay quiet much longer.
The vice president worried that a weeks-long public hiatus by his coronavirus task force had created an information void that contributed to a sharp rise in confirmed cases across the southern and western United States.
With a televised briefing on Friday, organized at Pence’s direction on a day’s notice, the group revealed an undercurrent of fear behind the scenes of the federal government as the virus mounted its resurgence.
Over the weekend, Pence stepped up his urgency. Other Trump officials and allies issued stark new warnings as case counts soared in some of the nation’s largest states. And the machinery that had lined up behind President Donald Trump’s mission-accomplished message suddenly started to fade away.
The striking shift in the vice president’s tone — from zealously defending Trump’s push to reopen the U.S. economy to complimenting governors on Monday for halting their states’ reopenings — underscores Pence’s thorny position as he works to balance his and Trump’s political futures, which largely rely on convincing voters an economic rebound is on the horizon, with ensuring an appropriate response to an unwieldy new phase in the coronavirus pandemic.
Inside the Department of Health and Human Services, officials have agonized over Pence’s recent messages on coronavirus, saying that his ever-sunny tone could confuse Americans about the actual risks of the outbreak.
“We are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” Pence contended in a June 16 op-ed that blamed the media for creating an “overblown” sense of panic about increased coronavirus infections during America’s phased economic reopening.
Pence spent Friday’s press conference touting the nation’s progress in fighting the coronavirus and defending the “constitutional rights” of people to participate in large gatherings, such as the Tulsa, Okla., Trump rally that Pence attended earlier this month, where a very small percentage of the crowd could be seen wearing protective coverings.
But the briefing foreshadowed a change in Pence’s own relaxed response to the novel coronavirus — a shift that intensified during his visit to a Texas mega-church, where he affirmed the importance of protective face coverings as a way to prevent transmission. It’s “just a good idea,” he said Sunday.
Pence praised Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who had proudly pushed to reopen his state quickly, for taking steps “to limit the kind of gatherings and meetings in certain places in communities that may well be contributing to the community spread that we’re seeing…”
Pence’s pro-mask endorsement drew praise from corners of the administration on Monday. One senior administration official said it was “a step in the right direction that President Trump should also take.”
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commented that “we need to get everybody on board at this point,” during a Monday webinar hosted by the Journal of the American Medical Association. (Schuchat did not cite Pence specifically, but spoke after the journal’s editor-in-chief praised the vice president for coming out in favor of masks over the weekend.)
But other recent comments by Pence — including his victory lap during Friday’s news conference about the amount of medical supplies and equipment procured by the administration — marked a jarring contrast against the alarm bells top health officials sounded last week.
“There are more cases. There are more hospitalizations in some of those places and soon you’ll be seeing more deaths,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the health experts on the White House coronavirus task force, said during the task force briefing as Pence quietly looked on.
“The window is closing,” added HHS Secretary Alex Azar during a Sunday morning appearance on NBC. “We have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibly.”
Azar’s comments previewed the sharper tone that both he and Pence have adopted in the past 48 hours, as more than a dozen states confront alarming surges in confirmed Covid-19 cases that could overwhelm hospitals and plunge some communities back into lockdowns that residents and business owners anxiously hope to avoid.
Six states — Texas, Florida, Idaho, Tennessee, Utah and Georgia — all reported their highest single-day totals of new coronavirus cases on Saturday, a development Abbott described as “a very dangerous turn” in his state.
Top White House officials remain divided over the best course of action as the rate of new infections spikes in states across the U.S. Some officials, including health aides, believe the government needs to offer Americans more information on a regular basis about the best practices to keep Americans safe in the age of Covid-19 as well as continuing updates on new infections. Other aides firmly believe the White House should charge ahead with its economic message, regardless of the virus. That faction inside the White House does not want regular briefings on the state of Covid-19 or too many public appearances from officials like Fauci that could sour the nation’s mood in the coming months.
The steep rise in infections led a number of Republicans in the last 48 hours to start promoting the idea of wearing masks in public, or donning face coverings themselves.
Pence wore a mask on Sunday as he stepped off the government plane in Texas to greet the governor, as did Sen. John Cornyn, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, all of whom joined the vice president on his Sunday trip to Texas.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor on Monday to say there should be “no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people.”
“Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter,” McConnell said, weeks after Trump mocked his 2020 Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, for wearing a mask outdoors on Memorial Day.
During Pence’s call with governors on Monday, Abbott cited festivities over Memorial Day weekend, as well as his decision to permit bars to reopen, as two reasons Texas has witnessed skyrocketing cases and hospitalizations in the past three weeks. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey similarly said coronavirus cases in his state had slowed to a crawl before the latest surge, which began after restaurants, gyms and non-essential industries were given the greenlight to resume business in May and early June.
The surges in the south are leading other states, such as New Jersey, to halt their plans to open indoor dining at restaurants — a sign of mounting worries hitting state leaders across the nation just as they hoped to be putting the crisis behind them.
At a coronavirus task force meeting on Friday, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway — who managed the president’s 2016 campaign — told aides the administration needed to make its priorities clear to the American public — including ideas about whether it was more important for bars in Texas and Florida to re-open this summer, or for schools to start on time in the fall, said a person familiar with the meeting.
White House coronavirus task force members spent much of Monday’s call with governors focusing on the drivers behind the precipitous rise in cases, according to two people familiar with the discussion. Notably absent from the conversation were previous dismissals by Pence and others that the increase in cases was largely the result of expanded testing.
Though Trump has continued to cling to increased testing as the primary explanation for new Covid-19 outbreaks, Pence has come to terms with the reality that testing alone cannot account for the surge of cases in the last week, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
In another striking departure from Trump, who sidelined the federal government’s task force last month to ensure his reopening message was front and center, Pence specifically commended governors on Monday for issuing new guidance or halting their plans to reopen. It was a significant break from his previous approval of states that had raced to start their economies back up.
Fauci, an expert in infectious diseases who established a ubiquitous on-screen presence during the early days of the pandemic, pointed to the resurgence of Covid-19 as a harsh reminder that it can often take two to three weeks for new coronavirus clusters to appear in data.
One senior administration official said the Trump campaign has been nervously monitoring data out of Oklahoma to determine whether the president’s June 22 rally, which the local fire department estimated 6,200 people attended, leads to apparent surge in surrounding counties over the next two weeks.
“There is definitely an acknowledgement that a surge is happening,” said one of the people familiar with Monday’s call with governors, which this person said was “the first time” administration officials admitted that a slow-speed reopening is likely safer than the rapid approach Trump has embraced.
Still, Pence and other top officials offered a mostly optimistic perspective of the coronavirus crisis, emphasizing that the nation is better-prepared to manage new outbreaks and encouraging governors to focus specifically on reminding younger Americans of the risk they could pose to older relatives if they become infected. Azar on the call avoided faulting the reopenings themselves for the upswing in cases, placing the blame instead on people failing to behave responsibly as states loosened their social distancing restrictions.
Task force members were also noncommittal about taking a stronger stand on mask-wearing, in response to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s request on the call for Trump to join his vice president in publicly urging Americans to wear face masks.
The Trump administration is, however, reviewing a new round of public health guidance for how states can mitigate the risks of coronavirus, with a focus on warnings about gatherings and the need for face coverings, said three officials. That guidance could be released by the July 4th holiday weekend, when Trump is expected to be in South Dakota to participate in a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore.
Meanwhile, Pence has canceled campaign-related events in Florida and Arizona this week — two states where coronavirus cases are rising rapidly — but is still expected to meet with both governors.
Before traveling to Texas on Sunday, where he spoke at First Baptist Church of Dallas alongside pro-Trump pastor Robert Jeffress and later met with Abbott, Pence organized the press conference last week where he and task force officials updated Americans on the resurgent virus. A person familiar with the matter said Pence arrived at the decision to hold a public briefing — following weeks of behind-the-scenes task force meetings — after he and several health officials expressed concern that an information void may have contributed to the sharp rise in coronavirus cases. The task force had stopped its near-daily briefings in early May when Trump and other senior administration officials began pushing states to reopen their economies.
But unlike those briefings, where top economic officials often made appearances to promote lifting bans on non-essential business operations and to laud the president’s leadership, Friday’s update was almost singularly focused on addressing recent Covid-19 outbreaks and encouraging Americans to exercise restraint and social distancing. While Pence spun a rosy picture about progress in testing and dismissed concerns about the president’s campaign schedule, he never once interjected when the health officials standing beside him gave sober assessments about the status of the pandemic.