By JORDYN PHELPS and BEN GITTLESON, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — While President Trump has repeatedly mused that the U.S. should slow down testing for the coronavirus as the surging case count has earned the United States the unenviable distinction as having the most reported cases in the world, he now appears to be acting to do just that.
Sources tell ABC News that the administration is proposing zeroing out funding for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, as well as funds for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health in a coronavirus relief package, as an opening offer in negotiations over the forthcoming relief package.
The president also announced Monday he would bring back the once-frequent coronavirus briefings, including leading them himself, likely as soon as Tuesday, after stopping them amid widespread criticism. The move came as an increasing number of states grappled with rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths and polls showed Americans increasingly disapprove of how he’s handling the crisis.
Trump’s testing proposition puts him at odds with Senate Republicans, who have proposed $25 billion in grants to states for testing and contact tracing, as well as about $10 billion for the CDC and $15 billion for the NIH, the sources said.
While sources caution that negotiations were only just getting underway on Monday, with a senior White House official saying “the President is fully committed to a robust aid package that addresses real needs,” the apparent opening offer by the White House tracks with the president’s rhetoric.
The president frequently calls testing a “double-edged” sword and has complained that the number of tests being done is to blame for the United States’ high case count.
At a campaign rally in June, the president said he actually ordered a slowdown in testing.
“I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down please,’ ” the president said.
He later said his comment was “semi-tongue in cheek” and that he had not actually ordered his health officials to slow testing. But he also made clear that he was serious in his complaint that “when you do more testing, you find more cases.”
“If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases,” the president said at another White House event in June.
The president made the argument again in an interview with Chris Wallace for Fox News Sunday when presented with a chart showing the growing cases last week.
“Chris, that’s because we have great testing, because we have the best testing in the world. If we didn’t test, you wouldn’t be able to show that chart. If we tested half as much, those numbers would be down,” Trump said.
When Wallace pointed out to the president that the increase is not simply attributable to an increase in testing and that the number of new cases far outstrips the number of tests — with cases growing by 194 percent compared to a 37 increase in testing — the president grew defensive as he downplayed the new reported cases.
“Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day. They have the sniffles and we put it down as a test,” Trump said.
According to ABC News analysis of New York Times and COVID Tracking Project data, in recent days the daily number of cases was on the rise in 40 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico; the percentage of tests coming back positive was increasing in 33 states; the daily hospitalization rate was up in 39 states and Puerto Rico; and the daily death rate was increasing in 28 states and Puerto Rico.
The desire to zero out funding the CDC also fit a pattern in which, over the course of the pandemic, the White House has sidelined the agency, not including its leaders in public briefings, blocking its director from testifying before Congress, and nixing it from the lead role in collecting data on the virus.
Trump himself has pressured the CDC to change its coronavirus-related guidelines for schools — the agency says it plans to release additional guidance, but so far has not done so — and last week shared a message on Twitter accusing the agency of “lying” in order to influence the November election; Trump provided no evidence for this claim.
The administration has over the past several months minimized the role of public health experts and prioritized its push for an economic recovery, which the president sees as key to his reelection chances.
Trump had ended his once-daily coronavirus news conferences, a constant fixture of the White House briefing room throughout March and April — a strategy aimed at convincing Americans the worst was behind them.
Despite Trump’s desire to move on, the pandemic has only worsened, and he said Monday he would once again bring back the briefings.
“We’ll start them again and I think it’s a great way to get information out to the public as to where we are with the vaccines, with the therapeutics, and generally speaking, where we are,” Trump told reporters during an unrelated meeting in the Oval Office.
Earlier this year, members of Trump’s own party questioned the wisdom of him holding the free-wheeling sessions in which he frequently spouted misinformation.
Now, months later, even fewer Americans — just 34% — trust Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.
The slipping poll numbers, and growing criticism over the president’s lack of public focus on the crisis as he has held just three coronavirus related events over the course of the month, led some on the president’s team to advocate for the return to the briefings.
Longtime aide and counselor Kellyanne Conway went public with her case Friday, telling reporters, “the president’s numbers were much higher when he was out there briefing everybody on his day-by-day basis.”
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