Barack Obama's harsh criticism of the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic this weekend brought renewed scrutiny of President Donald Trump's leadership, but administration officials defended the response as 'historic' Sunday as deaths neared 90,000.
During a Sunday morning appearance on CNN's 'State of the Union,' Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar touted the fact that the US has conducted 10 million tests over the last few months (a number that many health experts say is insufficient in a nation with 328 million people) and noted that the current coronavirus positivity rate is at 9%.
'Thanks to the President's historic response efforts here and the collaborative work of governors and heroic health care workers on the frontlines, we are in a position to reopen,' Azar said.
But Obama offered a very different take on Saturday when he broke with the longstanding tradition that former presidents should avoid criticizing the current occupant of the office. In two different graduation speeches Saturday, Obama told graduating high school seniors that the crisis has revealed the glaring inadequacies of America's current leadership.
'All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? It turns out that they don't have all the answers,' the former President said during Saturday night's special broadcast of 'Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020.' 'A lot of them aren't even asking the right questions. So, if the world's going to get better, it's going to be up to you.'
In an implicit rebuke of the President during a week when Trump marshaled an intensive PR campaign from the White House to improve Americans' perceptions of his pandemic response, Obama urged the graduating class to dedicate themselves to their communities, instead of self-serving pursuits.
'Doing what feels good, what's convenient, what's easy — that's how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up,' Obama said. 'I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.' His remarks came a week after he criticized the administration's handling of the pandemic response as 'an absolute chaotic disaster' on a private phone call with alumni from his administration.
Returning to the White House from Camp David on Sunday, Trump called his predecessor 'grossly incompetent.'
The contrast of Obama's sharp critique and Trump's vigorous efforts to reshape the narrative about his administration's haphazard response to the virus offered a preview of the arguments the two sides will make in the general election campaign. Obama is increasingly stepping off the sidelines to become a forceful advocate for his former vice president, Joe Biden, while Trump and his allies risk sounding tone deaf as they herald the response at a time when American deaths are nearing six digits.
A risky approach to reopening
The former President's public comments capped a solemn week when US coronavirus cases neared 1.5 million and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted that all of the forecasting models tracked by the CDC now predict that US deaths will exceed 100,000 by June 1.
But Trump has continued his unrelenting push for states to open their economies. During a Rose Garden event this week where he reiterated his hope that a coronavirus vaccine could be ready by the end of this year -- a goal many medical experts view as highly optimistic -- Trump declared that 'vaccine or no vaccine, we're back.'
Asked what the President meant by that phrase, Azar said Sunday that a potential vaccine is just one component of the administration's response effort that will include increased testing, greater surveillance to find cases and the investigation of coronavirus treatments like convalescent plasma, which involves doctors testing for antibodies to the virus in the blood plasma of a person who recovered and then injecting the plasma, or a derivative, into the person infected with coronavirus.
When CNN's Jake Tapper noted the American death toll -- saying that 'the US has less than 5% of the world's population but has 30% of the world's officially reported coronavirus deaths' -- Azar pointed to the high level of complicating medical factors like obesity, hypertension and diabetes in the United States: 'Every death is a tragedy, but the results could have been vastly, vastly worse,' he said.
'Unfortunately, the American population is a very diverse and it is a population with significant unhealthy comorbidities that do make many individuals in our communities, in particular, African Americans and minority communities, particularly at risk here, because of significant underlying disease health disparities and disease comorbidities and that is an unfortunate legacy in our health care system that we certainly do need to address.'
'The response here in the United States has been historic to keep this within our health care capacity,' Azar added.
When asked whether he was alarmed by images of crowded bars and restaurants in states like Wisconsin and Ohio this weekend, Azar said it was inevitable that people would do things that are 'irresponsible.' 'That's part of the freedom that we have here in America,' he said.
'If you're in an area that has ongoing community spread of disease, there are steps you should take,' Azar said. 'We count on local leaders to implement and interpret that according to the local situation. But we've got to get this economy and our people out and about -- working, going to school again, because there are serious health consequences to what we've been going through.'
On NBC's 'Meet the Press,' Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro, the Defense Production Act policy coordinator, said criticism that the White House should have made greater use of the Defense Production Act to obtain medical supplies and personal protective equipment is 'dead wrong.' He also argued that keeping people under 'lockdown' could ultimately 'kill a lot more people.'
'As we've basically locked down our hospitals for everything but Covid, women haven't been getting mammograms or cervical examinations for cancer. We haven't been able to do other procedures for the heart or the kidneys. And that's going to kill people as well,' Navarro said Sunday. 'So if you contrast like this complete lockdown -- where some of the people in the medical community want to just run and hide until the virus is extinguished -- that's going to not only take a huge toll on the American economy, it's going to kill many more people than virus, the China virus, ever would.'
Navarro also sought to blame the early problems with coronavirus testing on the CDC. The agency, he said Sunday, 'really let the country down with the testing. Because not only did they keep the testing within the bureaucracy, they had a bad test.'
Another Friday night firing
With Americans distracted by the toll of the pandemic, the President seized the moment to execute a Friday night firing of the inspector general at the State Department who aided lawmakers during the impeachment inquiry -- a move that drew outrage from Democrats and admonishments from Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mitt Romney of Utah.
State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was investigating whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a staffer perform a variety of personal errands, including walking his dog, picking up dry cleaning and making a dinner reservation for him and his wife, a Democratic aide told CNN Sunday.
Linick was the fourth independent government watchdog that Trump has either fired or moved to replace in the months since his impeachment acquittal in February, maneuvers motivated by his perceptions that the officials were disloyal, critical of his administration, or simply holdovers from Democratic administrations.
Romney, the only GOP senator who voted to convict Trump of abuse of power, tweeted that 'the firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.'
Linick's dismissal was similar to the Friday night firing in April of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who alerted Congress to the anonymous Ukraine whistleblower complaint. In both cases, Trump told Congressional leaders he needed to have the 'fullest confidence' in appointees serving as inspectors general and that he had lost that confidence.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- echoing his Democratic colleagues who have opened an investigation into the firing -- was sharply critical of Linick's dismissal Sunday during an appearance on ABC's 'This Week.'
'This President thinks he's above the law, he is above criticism. He wants to get away with anything that he can, and he does not understand that in the function of government you have a Congress, you have inspector generals who say, by the way, Mr. President, what you're doing is wrong, and it may be illegal. This has been his modus operandi from day one,' Sanders said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on CBS' 'Face the Nation' that the White House has not provided reasons for the State Department Inspector General's removal beyond the letter she received from Trump on Friday. Removing an inspector general who has opened a potentially damaging investigation could be 'unlawful,' she said, adding that 'even Republicans in Congress are concerned.'
But if that is true, only a few have spoken up, including Grassley, Romney and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told CNN's Tapper on 'State of the Union' that he was satisfied with the administration's explanation for removing Linick.
'I don't know whether they're going to provide any more robust rationale for doing it,' Johnson said. He also said he and Grassley had a 'real problem' with Linick's 'responsiveness' to one oversight request, though he did not provide any more detail.
In a statement Saturday, Grassley said the President was required to provide lawmakers with a written explanation for removing inspectors general and said, 'a general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.'
This story has been updated with details about Linick's investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.