WHITE HOUSE - Donald Trump’s presidency is facing one of its biggest challenges from the spread of the new coronavirus, which threatens to infect the healthy U.S. economy.
Trump on Friday, in remarks to reporters and at a political rally, downplayed the potential seriousness of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, comparing it to influenza and complaining of U.S. media coverage of and Democrats’ attention to the potential pandemic.
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” Trump said at a political rally in South Carolina. “This is their new hoax.”
Investors are not regarding it as a hoax. U.S. stock indexes logged their worst weekly decline Friday since the 2008 financial crisis, in large part due to fears about looming economic impact of disease’s global transmission.
“We are totally prepared,” Trump said at his campaign rally. “The press is in hysteria mode.”
Departing the White House for his trip to South Carolina, Trump singled out one cable broadcaster for particular criticism.
“CNN is a very disreputable network,” Trump said before boarding the Marine One helicopter. “I think they’re doing everything they can to instill fear in people.”
As U.S. stock prices continued to plunge, White House national economic director Larry Kudlow told reporters Friday that the country’s economy remained fundamentally sound and “I don’t think people should panic.”
Kudlow, who is a member of the administration’s newly formed coronavirus task force, said that while there was currently no evidence of major supply chain disruptions, “that may be ahead of us.”
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell issued a statement while trading was still underway Friday afternoon, saying the central bank would use its tools and “act as appropriate to support the economy.”
Powell said the “fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong,” but “the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity” and the Fed “is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook.”
Trump has repeatedly complained the Fed has not been aggressive enough in cutting rates.
“I hope the Fed gets involved and gets involved soon,” Trump said to reporters on Friday afternoon. “They’ve done this country a great disservice.”
The Trump administration will invoke special powers through a law called the Defense Production Act (DPA) to rapidly expand domestic manufacturing to acquire 300 million N95 protective masks, as well as masks and gloves – all at an estimated cost of $500 million.
“We intend to use [the DPA] to acquire anything we need to acquire. We won't use it unnecessarily,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told White House reporters on Friday.
Donald Trump Jr., one of Trump's sons, accused members of the Democratic Party of wanting the coronavirus to kill “millions of people,” which he told Fox News Channel was a “new level of sickness” among opposition politicians.
Democratic U.S. Representative John Garamendi called Trump Jr.’s comment “totally outrageous.”
Appearing on MSNBC, the California lawmaker said: “I can assure you that there’s not a Democrat or Republican in Congress that wants anybody to be sick.”
Leaders of the Democratic Party, which controls the House and is in the minority in the Senate, have been critical of what they characterize as a tardy and disorganized response by the Trump administration to the threat from the coronavirus.
“This situation demands more transparency from the government, and the American people need to hear the unfiltered truth directly from the scientists and health experts,” said Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate. “President Trump and his team have to stop blaming everyone but themselves, focus less on political rallies and more on solutions to combat the spread of coronavirus.”
Azar said that the Trump administration was requesting a total of $1 billion to support development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The situation demands more support from Congress,” he said.
Administration officials say they want Trump to be able to sign a supplemental spending bill for funds to combat the coronavirus no later than the week after next.
The officials are rejecting criticism they had previously cut funds for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget on infectious diseases.
The acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russ Vought, called such media reporting “flat out inaccurate.”
Globally, there were more than 83,000 known cases of COVID-19, with about 2,900 reported deaths.
In the United States, there were more than 60 cases, including in California and Oregon several possible transmissions of the coronavirus in the community.
About half of the U.S. cases were passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. The vessel had previously visited China, the source of the outbreak.
“We haven’t lost anybody yet and hopefully we can keep that intact,” Trump said to reporters before heading to the South Carolina rally. “A lot of that is attributable to the fact we closed the border very early. Otherwise, it could be a different story.”
Hundreds of U.S. nationals have been repatriated from mainland China on State Department-chartered flights. They were then placed in 14-day quarantines on airbases in California.
A whistleblower complaint, according to media reports, alleged federal employees sent to military bases did not follow safety protocols while interacting with those individuals and the government workers subsequently were not tested for COVID-19 before departing the bases and then were sent home on commercial flights.
“We are fully investigating the allegations in the complaint,” Azar told reporters on Friday.